If I had to pick an over-arching genre that tends to underwhelm, I’d pick country music. More specifically, it’s the pop-country that hogs the airwaves and collects the accolades at the CMA’s that I’m referring to. The rather bland lyrics, the predictable song structure and direction, and the general sense of “that’s all you got?” hamstrings the field as a whole. That’s why it is so refreshing to give the Drive-By Truckers, an alternative country mainstay, and their newest disc entitled English Oceans a multitude of listens.
The story-telling element of Drive-By Truckers is shared by two balladeers. The vocal split of Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley alternates throughout the album with both singers finding success throughout. The album is bookended by the shared responsibility; Hood croons over the slow jam finale “Grand Canyon,” the appropriate night cap for the album, whereas Cooley tees it off with the modern day Thin Lizzy tune that instantly grabs you entitled “Shit Shots Count.” Lyrically, these songs don’t reshape the world, but rather give you a truer sense of direction that country music should have gone.
Flanked by those songs, the listener travels along with the band via Southern rock ballads that aren’t completely devoid of melancholy country lyrics, but where other cowboy-boot clad bands fall short, the Drive-By Truckers pull you in with variety and rock. “The Part Of Him” hums along with a twangy rhythm guitar that interweaves beautifully with a banjo. Immediately following it is “Hearing Jimmy Loud” which won’t outright wow you, but instead deceives by secretly digging its claws into you. It’s the song you want to hear live and a dive bar a smidge louder than you’d otherwise prefer, but by the time the song has ended you and everyone else couldn’t care less. Between “Natural Light”, a saloon-style serenade and “Pauline Hawkins,” a slightly out-of-tune track that sounds like a Flaming Lips and Built To Spill lovechild, the piano plays a subtly yet integral part on the album: it keeps the in-concert vibe in a time where over-produced records reigns supreme.
The band hails from Athens, GA, a city known for its live music. Unfortunately, I never got to see them in concert when I lived in their neck of the woods, something I plan on rectifying when they visit Denver in April. But their unabashed sense of freedom and fun in the form of swampy rock n’ roll encapsulates the night that I first heard the band. I first experienced their sound six years ago at an impromptu shindig involving a dozen or so friends in Charleston, SC. Some say the night degraded, whereas I say it improved, to an evening of debauchery, safety goggle, helmets, and drinking games. Who knows how it all transpired, but we are all glad it did in that unpredictable manner. In a way it suits the band; no matter how you slice it, they’re music is go-to for good jams and good times.