Friday, March 28, 2014

Drive-By Truckers English Oceans 2014

For the first time ever, Mike Cooley splits songwriting duties almost down the middle with Patterson Hood. It may well be their best effort to date. Coincidence? I don't think so.

And it's not like I think Cooley's such a hotdog songwriter, but he definitely rises to the occasion, and holds up his end of the bargain. He has always offered his Stones antidote to Hood's Neil Young, and with more of his songs, there's a very good balance. We also get more consistently strong songs from Hood as well, maybe because the weaker ones weren't needed this time.

Since 2011's Go-Go Boots, the band lost bassist Shonna Tucker, and also guitarist John Neff, and replaced her with new bassist Matt Patton. Longtime drummer Brad Morgan is in fine form, and Jay Gonzalez plays keyboards and sometimes takes up the third guitar role left by Neff. We have a tight little five-piece firing on all cylinders.

And that may be the key. This band has been as sprawling and uneven in its personnel as its big ideas and large statements. It is a glorious mess at its best. But the focus on the two mainstay writers, the tight guitar interplay (sometimes down to just two guitars), and the continuation of the lyrical theme of the seedy underbelly of humanity that has been their hallmark, all make this the most focused Drive-By Truckers release yet.

Cooley's Shit Shots Count opens the record with a Stones-y rocker and a killer lead guitar. Hood follows with his When He's Gone, a Neil Young tribute to the classic love-hate relationship. There's a fair amount of country-rock here as well, more so than recent records anyway. Both Primer Coat and Pauline Hawkins dissect female dysfunction in country rhythms. The Part Of Him's politician bashing and the fast-paced country shuffle of First Air Of Autumn run the same vein.

Natural Light is about as close as Cooley gets to a love song, a countrified swagger with great guitars bouncing off Gonzalez' piano. Gonzalez shines again on Hood's Hanging On, with chiming keyboards over Hood's tale of just getting by.

Finally, there are the anthems. No Drive-by Truckers record can be without them. The country dirge of When Walter Went Crazy works perfectly with Hood's cinematic powerhouse lyric. The final track, Grand Canyon, an ode to their longtime assistant Craig Lieske, is the big rock ballad that perfectly wraps a great record.

Maybe the lack of friction between Hood, Cooley, and a third writer (Tucker, and before that, Jason Isbell) is good for this band. Maybe this is the band they were meant to be, distilled down to its core components. Or maybe we just needed a few more Mike Cooley songs.

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