Sound — 8
Drive-By Truckers formed sometime in the 1990's with their first album, "Gangstabilly," releasing in 1998. Since the beginning the band has mainly been the vehicle of the musical partnership between Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley from Athens, Georgia - which happens to be very near my own hometown. During the time they've experimented in alternative country, southern rock, and cowpunk or punkabilly - but their core sound is probably most accurately described as southern rock - especially on this release, "English Oceans." Each song on the album was written by either Hood or Cooley. The album contains 13 tracks and clocks in at about 1 hour and is being released by ATO Records. "Pauline Hawkins" was released as the first single from the album.
The album opens up with the track "Sh-t Shot Counts," which is one of the more "rock" songs of the album with Cooley sounding a little bit like what Mick Jagger might have sounded if he grew up in the U.S. South. The southern rock riffs that carry the song had me tapping my foot within the first 30 seconds. "When He's Gone" has an almost '70s vibe to the guitar riffs to me, while the vocals have a kind of plaintive whine that works really well for this song. "Primer Coat" is much more "country" in overall sound, but with the guitars a little bit overdriven. Cooley's vocals strongly remind me of Willie Nelson for this entire track. "Pauline Hawkins", which is the lead single from the album, is thematically about how the songwriter isn't willing to settle down and is only interested in the moment and is making no commitments. I'm not sure if the song is written to or from the perspective of "Pauline Hawkins." "Made Up English Oceans" has a really unusual vibe to it with very narrative lyrics in a very nasally country drawl with some relatively clean guitars compared to the rest of the album. "The Part of Him" is very country - at times sounding almost bluegrass - with an interesting narrative told in the lyrics. "Hearing Jimmy Loud" is an almost proto-punk type of track with a strong twist of country - this type of track is maybe the most identifying type of track that Drive-By Truckers record. "Til He's Dead or Rises" is another narrative style track, alt country with a little grit on the guitars. "Hanging On" is a more acoustic track, which is somewhere in the middle ground between alt country and southern rock and actually sounds borderline psychedelic in parts. "Natural Light" is very much into the whole Willie Nelson vibe to me, and seems like something you'd hear at a honky tonk in the 1980's. "When Walter Went Crazy" is possibly one of the most entertaining narratives on the whole album, with once again relatively clean guitars and piano or keyboard. "First Air of Autumn" has a nice bounce to it after the semi-depressive feel of "When Walter Went Crazy," even with "First Air of Autumn" exuding an undercurrent of nostalgia or melancholy. The album closes out with the track "Grand Canyon" which is a musically dense track in comparison to a lot of the tracks on the album, but is the perfect track for closing out the album and leaving a good last impression.
Lyrics — 8
Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley trade off lead vocals from track to track, apparently based off whichever wrote that particular song. They each seem to have their normal singing voice and then their "country" singing voice - it took me a minute to figure that one out - but essentially it sounds like 4 different vocalists on the album instead of 2. Hood's "non-country" vocals sound kind of like Neil Young, while his country vocals are a little more nasal. Cooley's "non-country" vocals maybe sound a little bit like Mick Jagger, but his "country" vocals are very similar to Willie Nelson. I'm making some assumptions about the vocals, as Matt Patton is credited with some vocals also, but I think he is just providing some harmonized backing vocals at certain points, and Jay Gonzalez is providing some backing vocals as well. The differences in vocals from track to track helps the album avoid sounding monotonous, along with the changes in style from song to song going from country to alt rock. As a sample of the lyrics, here are some from the single, "Pauline Hawkins": "Don't call me your baby/ I won't answer/ Love is like cancer/ And I am immune/ to all that you're bringing/ the tune that you're singing/ a sign of a locked room/ I saw the locked room/ it's such an illusion/ before the collision/ I made a decision/ don't tell me your secrets/ I'd rather not listen/ I know what I'm missing/ It's always too soon/ It's always too soon to be cold for comfort/ to belong to someone inside a locked room."
Overall Impression — 8
This isn't necessarily the type of album that I would listen to without it being assigned from UG, but honestly I'm glad I did. The songs are generally well-crafted with lyrics that range from somewhat philosophical to straight narratives. The sound from song to song has enough variance that the album doesn't blur together which helps the standout moments in the album actually standout. I did go back and listen to some of the band's earlier material and I think that they did lose something valuable when Isbell left the band, but they're making phenomenal use of what they have left. My favorite songs from the album are "When He's Gone," "Natural Light," and "When Walter Went Crazy." I didn't really dislike any of the songs, but the ones with the strongest country twang in the vocals were the hardest for me to wrap my head around, but I think that is more about my personal hang-ups than anything else.