a home for the americana diaspora
September 17, 2016
Here's the question: Does every band need to "mature"? If last year's album sounds just like this year's album, do we accuse the band of spinning its wheels? Conversely, is that band selling out if their approach changes noticeably from one record to the next?
Drive-by Truckers tore out of Athens (by way of AL) in the latter days of the 20th Century, purveyors of gloriously unpolished gems like "Living Bubba" and "Nine Bullets". 2002's Southern Rock Opera earned widespread accolades if for no other reason than for having the balls to release a double album song cycle in praise of Lynyrd Skynyrd. What's followed from Dirty South and Brighter Than Creation's Dark and 2014's English Oceans has traced Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley through lineup changes, cleaner sounds and a deeper mythology, shedding Jason Isbell, John Neff, Shonna Tucker and others in their wake. But the output's been admirably consistent, establishing the band as among the best American bands of the aughts. One of the heartier branches of the Routes & Branches musical shrubbery.
We're used to enjoying a new Wes Freed illustration with every Drive-by Truckers release. The band's 11th record instead bears the striking image of a U.S. flag at half mast. American Band could be called their "state of the union" album, stepping back to take stock of all that's led to the lowering of Stars & Stripes depicted on the cover. Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley talk borders and guns, war on culture and on populations, individuals caught in the crosshairs and a country gone awry. Both have shown themselves to be smart writers since the start, but "What It Means" and "Surrender Under Protest" feature some of their most direct and effective social commentary to date. While there are moments of anger and accusation on American Band, the pervading spirit is one of observation and concern. Overall, it's a tighter, more deliberate collection than listeners might expect.
Songs like "Ramon Casiano" are also quick to establish a driving and tuneful guitar groove, the true story of two radically different lives converging at the point of injustice. "Killing's been the bullet's business / Since back in 1931 / Someone killed Ramon Casiano / And Ramon's still not dead enough". "What It Means" lopes along on an unexpectedly restrained acoustic strum that builds over nearly 7 minutes. Patterson Hood assumes the prophet's role, naming names and raising questions, but the response is ours to decide. "We're living in an age / Where limitations are forgotten / The outer edges move and dazzle us / But the core is something rotten". "Guns of Umpqua" juxtaposes the gorgeous Oregon Cascades with the senseless Roseburg school shooting.
"We're all standing in the shadows of our noblest intentions of something more / Than being shot in a classroom in Oregon / It's a morning like so many others with breakfast and birthdays / The sun burned the fog away, the breeze blew the mist away / My friend Jack is having a baby / And I see birds soaring through the clouds outside my window / Heaven's calling my name from the hallway outside the door".
Elsewhere, Mike Cooley unleashes "Filthy and Fried", a rambling rocker that juggles scattershot stream-of-consciousness phrases and immediately stands among his best. "The old man's world was more doing than thinking and the doing was more cut and dried / Now girls collect trophies as much as the boys and come home just as filthy and fried".
While American Band finds the outfit widening its perspective to encompass goings on in Oregon, St Louis, Florida and elsewhere, one of Hood's most moving contributions finds him reflecting on his identity as a Southerner from the porch of his Portland home. "Ever South" is built on little more than martial drums and a blunt bass, a history lesson that resonates in the heart of one man. "Everyone takes notice of the drawl that leaves our mouth / So no matter where we are we're ever South".
Freed's colorful art projects a cartoon-like impression of Southern life. We recognize the faces and the broad caricatures, the dark and almost sinister proposition of working class existence. On American Band, Drive-by Truckers set aside the fables and stories to talk about the warm blood flowing from real people on our streets. For a band that's flirted for nearly two decades with the edge, it's an impressively mature, measured and heartfelt gesture. The guitars continue to play loud and the ghosts of Muscle Shoals continue to haunt these songs, even as we struggle to understand the weight that's bringing down the country and our possible role in raising the flag.
As though we need more, this week also brought me full copies of new records by Reckless Kelly, Matt Woods, Dwight Yoakam and Hiss Golden Messenger, each of which could nose its way onto my yearly favorites over the next several weeks. Less pressing but more essential is Charlie Rich's devastating 2002 "Feel Like Going Home". And there's nothing I'm looking forward to more than Alejandro Escovedo's pending collaboration with Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey.
- Porter & the Bluebonnet Rattlesnakes, "Don't Hang Up Virginia" Don't Go Baby It's Gonna Get Weird Without You (Porter, 16)
^ Drive-by Truckers, "Ever South" American Band (ATO, 16)
- Reckless Kelly, "Moment In the Sun" Sunset Motel (No Big Deal, 16)
- Justin Wells, "Three Quarters Gone" Dawn In the Distance (August, 16)
- Courtney Marie Andrews, "How Quickly Your Heart Mends" Honest Life (Mama Bird, 16)
- Terry Allen, "Amarillo Highway" Lubbock (On Everything) (Paradise of Bachelors, 16)
- Ward Davis, "Old Wore Out Cowboys" 15 Years In a 10 Year Town (Hawkville, 15)
- Brent Cobb, "Solving Problems" Shine On Rainy Day (Elektra, 16)
- Handsome Family, "King of Dust" Unseen (Handsome, 16)
- Paul Cauthen, "My Gospel" My Gospel (Lightning Rod, 16)
- Hollis Brown, "Don't Want To Miss You" Cluster of Pearls (Alive Naturalsound, 16)
- Dwight Yoakam, "Guitars Cadillacs" Swimmin' Pools Movie Stars (Sugar Hill, 16)
- Amanda Shires, "When You're Gone" My Piece of Land (BMG, 16)
- Charlie Rich, "Feel Like Going Home" Pictures & Paintings (Sire, 92)
- Jim Lauderdale, "Lonely Weekends" Feel Like Going Home: Songs of Charlie Rich (Memphis Int'l, 16) D
- Hiss Golden Messenger, "As the Crow Flies" Heart Like a Levee (Merge, 16)
- Tallest Man On Earth, "Rivers" single (Merge, 16)
- Joe Purdy, "New Years Eve" Who Will Be Next (Mudtown Crier, 16)
- Wayne Hancock, "Slingin' Rhythm" Slingin' Rhythm (Bloodshot, 16) D
- Bonnie Whitmore, "She's a Hurricane" Fuck With Sad Girls (Whitmore, 16) D
- Ryan Bingham, "Back By the River (live)" Musical Mojo of Dr John (Concord, 16) D
- Alejandro Escovedo, "Heartbeat Smile" Burn Something Beautiful (Fantasy, 16) D
- Mountain Goats, "New Chevrolet In Flames" See America Right (Mt Goats, 02)
- Matt Woods, "Little Heartache" How To Survive (Last Chance, 16)
- Aaron Lee Tasjan, "Memphis Rain" Silver Tears (New West, 16)
- J Roddy Walston & the Business, "Don't Get Old (acoustic)" Don't Break the Needle (Vagrant, 10)
- Langhorne Slim & the Law, "Two Crooked Hearts" Way We Move (Ramseur, 08)
- Luke Winslow-King, "Change Your Mind" I'm Glad Trouble Don't Last Always (Bloodshot, 16)
... and your Soundcloud playlist for this week's Episode awaits you below.