Friday, February 22, 2008

Drive By Truckers: Not A Pretty Sight

The Drive By Truckers were an integral part of Southern music before even releasing their first album. Patterson Hood, one of the Trucker's founding members is the son of base player David Hood from Muscle Shoals fame. As such his father was present on many of Southern Soul's most shining moments recorded at the Fame studios. Patterson continued that family tradition by backing and producing Soul diva Bettye LaVette on her last album, "The Scene Of The Crime". Spooner Oldham, also from Muscle Shoals fame, was asked to play keyboards on that project and a few others sat in. At first glance the whole project seemed a little odd. The Drive By Truckers themselves were better known for their Lynyrd Skynyrd type southern Rock, never really an act quickly associated with Southern Soul. But from an historic perspective the project made perfect sense. Southern Soul like Southern Rock is deeply seeped in Country. Down South Soul and Country would often be bouncing of each other and session players would as easily be found on a Aretha Franklin album as they would be on a Linda Ronstadt recording. Singers would take a song from one genre and record it in the other. All great Southern Soul artists have been known to record Country songs and visa verse. Even though the South was a highly segregated society, ironically the music scene was one of the most integrated their ever was. So of course the Truckers were cut and tailored for the Bettye Sessions.

On their new album "Brighter Than Creation's Dark" Spooner Oldham is present again. Although Spooner Oldham is best known for his work on classic Soul records from Arteha Franklin and Percy Sledge or his writing with Dan Penn on songs as "I'm Your Puppet" and "Sweet Inspiration", he sounds like a fish in the water on this new Truckers album. No big surprise here as well though. After the Southern Soul scene collapsed when Martin Luther King was assassinated and Stax went bankrupt, Oldham was most commonly found backing the likes of J.J. Cale, Bob Dylan or Neil Young. Artists to which the Drive By Truckers are more than a little indebted. "Brighter Than Creation's Dark" is again the kind of album you'd wish Neil Young would still make with his Crazy Horse. Crank up the volume on your stereo and you'd swear that's vintage Gray Horse you hear blasting out of your speakers, especially on "That Man I Shot", a gripping portrait of a soldier in Iraq. Though the Truckers are lacking in originality that is not necessarily a bad thing. They're filling a gap left by the great Southern Rockers like Young and Creedence Clearwater Revival or rather stepping into a long tradition. Though R&R has always had this progressive image, much of it proved to be highly conservative. To me acts that try to built on the foundations of other always sounded better than bands that take great strain and pain to be absolutely original. As such the Truckers not only fall into the tradition of mentioned acts but are proving to be as lasting as Pearl Jam, Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams. All acts who rely heavily on R&R's past and solid songwriting.

Surprisingly that is where this album truly excels. Despite the departure of Trucker tune smith Jason Isbell, the band once again manages to present a collection of vivid portraits. The main theme to the album seems to be the struggles of every day people. Each new lyric transports you to a new life. Its almost like your passing from town to town. The theme the Truckers picked on this album has already led reviewers to compare them to the likes of Bruce Springsteen. No mean feat and I'm prone to agree. The songwriting on "Brighter Than Creation's Dark" has those same cinematic qualities Springsteen's best work possesses. The main difference between Springsteen and the Truckers seems to be that the first cannot help but instill his work with some hope and grandeur. In contrast the songs on this album are bleak confronting tales of people trying to on by a thread or who have already given up. The Truckers seem to have little illusions on what life has to offer for some folks. The song here are filled with alcohol and drugs abuse, gambling addiction, prison and poverty. To the people in these songs the American Dream proved to be an empty promise. "Brighter Than Creation's Dark" is borderline nihilistic at times. Though that will soon make you a critics darling, I doubt that it will bring the Drive By Truckers major commercial success any time soon. For that the Truckers miss the optimism that seemed trademark to Southern Soul. And although their song writing is highly emphatic the Truckers also seem to lack the fragility and tenderness that gave Neil Young and Willie Nelson their careers. The sparks of hope are there. In "Perfect Timing" the protagonist cheerfully exclaims "I used to hate the fool in me, but now I tolerate him all day long". But the albums darkness is mostly balanced out by the occasional wryly comical observations like "Bob" who's got more dogs than friends. Those moments are sparse and few. Good as every individual song may be I must wonder if the album shouldn't have been condensed into 45 minutes to be more effective. As it is now one needs to be able stomach 75 minutes of American drama. The Truckers hold a mirror to America's face and it isn't a very pretty sight.

"That Man I Shot"


The Springsteen comparison doesn't seem all that odd after all. Someone was kind enough to direct me to Patterson covering the Boss on yet another fine blog.

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