Drive-By Truckers do, if you will, a sort of Fables of the “Recollections”, reconstructing their past into songs of experience and charm.
Release Date: 3rd June 2022
Format: CD / Vinyl / Digital
Drive-By Truckers new release? Yeah, so no great surprise there, this most prolific of bands seem to pop one out every five minutes; heard one, heard ’em all, right? Wrongity wrong on, actually, all counts. Sure, they have a pretty substantive back catalogue, but most are worth at least a moment of your time and this, well, this one needs you to drop everything and get it in whatever machine of choice to play. I am sure there are those who say that they were never the same after Jason Isbell left and got sober, and, whilst some truth may reside in that, who would want them to be the same, when so much strength remains in the band. It’s true, down now to the hard core of Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, with a changing line-up almost album by album, the current five piece is as fiery a furnace as they have ever stoked, and this is about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on. And possibly off.
There wasn’t even a plan around releasing a new record round about now. Shaking off the lockdown shackles, the members had regrouped in Athens, Georgia, towards the end of last year, to sort of see how everything was hanging. Those few days, three, in fact, shocked even the band, so galvanised were they, writing and recording all the material, largely live in the studio, the fewer takes the better, until, bang, suddenly, there it was, done and dusted. They sound a different band and, sure, I’ll have some of what they’re having, they coming over like a hopped up Felice Brothers, to whom the gift of electricity had just been granted.
The disc starts with a scuzzily riffed guitar, dirty and simplistic, the bass and drums entering, root notes and bar band 4:4 thwacks. So basic it is brilliant; you can’t make this din without some serious study and practice. Hood speak/sings a narrative that recounts the sort of road trip the younger band might have taken, and probably did: “Trying to make sense of the pieces of my life”. Between the power chords come spooky backing vocals, courtesy Schaefer Llana, all building a powerful atmospheric. The two guitars, Hood and Cooley also, ply sound, more as scene setting than soloing, by way of a brief middle eight. It all sounds as grizzled as do the band look on the cover of the disc, ending just as it starts, with the tour bus starting to splutter. Cooley now takes up the vocal rein for the elegantly entitled Maria’s Awful Disclosure. This starts all a’jangle, heavy tail end period Byrds, the lyrics seeming to be a knowing deconstruction of adult periodicals. Actually, it is all about an anti-catholic diatribe published in 1836, which may or may not matter. Is that a backwards guitar solo I hear? Wonderful. Meanwhile Brad Morgan’s foursquare beat just keeps on beating on, much as it has since he joined the band at the turn of the century, his cohort on the bass, a mere decade long presence. Not that you would necessarily otherwise clock it, R.E.M.’s Mike Mills is on hand here for extra vocals.
Shake and Pine drops a gear and is a milder mannered (slightly) musing on age, some eerie organ trickling in from Jay Gonzalez, reminding all he is still on board. But it is still the guitar play between Cooley and Hood that hold the key, they picking off different directions to carry the song along. That more downbeat mood is maintained by the We Will Never Wake You Up In The Morning, a chilling song that watches the booze and substance perfused decline of a friend. Totally matter of fact and without judgement, it is all the more galling. The pedal steel expresses all the emotions needed. I wondered at first whether it may be addressed to Isbell, heading fast that way when in the band, but it seems darker even than his journey. “And the last time we ever saw you……..” Eek. A tripped drum beat and the song extends into an instrumental coda, full of choked what if intentions. The title track then catches you back from reverie, Morgan instilling an almost Glitter Band beat, which is apt for another reminisce back to the lot of a jobbing band, playing covers from who’ll ever listen. For this is how they started and, as Hood wryly observes: “Our glory days kinda sucked!”
Forged In Heaven And Hell strays not one iota from the pattern thus far, Cooley and Hood clearly locking into that stage of their life when, old enough to better, there is enough memory to remember when they were neither. As with We Will Never Wake You Up, the lyrics are succinctly worded, less is more and leaving the listener to apply the backdrop, a marvellously adept way to paint a picture. Steel and electric piano give added colour, as does Margo Timmins on backing vocals, with Mr. Timmins, Jeremy Ivey, adding some mournful harmonica. As the song turns from raising hell to raising kids, it avoids sentimentality in its honesty. Every Single Storied Flameout is another four to the floor rocker, and a rare instance where the band employ brass, it proving a good move, giving life to the most generic song here.
Those in the groove for DTB deep cuts will know of Billy Ringo from a Patterson Hood 2012 solo set. Well, Billy Ringo In The Dark updates his story, a plaintive tale of lost opportunity, producer David Barbe, the sometime sixth member, adding some lonesome organ chords. So, as good a time as any to comment on his main role, the sound overall straight and uncluttered, allowing the singers to drawl and instrumentalists to play. Job done, exactly what was needed. Finally, and inevitably, the closer, Wilder Days, is another look back, with both affection and realism: “life could not sustain”, again about the youth of the band, Cooley and Hood in the main. A wistful recollection that avoids any rose tinting, again acceptance and just that. “There’s no comfort in survival, but it’s still the best option that I’ve found,” and I like that, and can buy into it. The keening freeform vocals of Llana end both the song and the record.
Those at their few June dates in the UK, culminating at Black Deer festival in nearly a fortnight’s time, have got a humdinger ahead of them, should this album feature large in their show. Recent shows suggest at least a couple of songs do, including this one, We Will Never wake You Up In The Morning: