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Wit, Southern Rock, and the Drive-by Truckers

Drive-by Truckers -- "Go-Go Boots" -- ATO Records -- 4 STARS

Courtesy ATO Records

“It’s like bringing flowers to your mama and tracking dog shit all over the floor: Jesus made the flowers but it took a dog to make the story good.” Nothing better illustrates the Drive-by Trucker’s perfect dichotomy of traditional country styles and tongue-in-cheek humor than this line from “Cartoon Gold.” Their new album “Go-Go Boots” is equal parts warbling, banjo strumming, oddball one-liners, and self-mockery. Their careful blend of traditional southern rock and country tropes with a typically alt-rock self-awareness makes this a universally accessible—and remarkably enjoyable—album.

The musicianship throughout the entire album is remarkably tight. While notable, the band’s technical harmony is not completely surprising since founding members Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have been together since the late ’80s, playing in a good number of bands before forming the Truckers in 1996. Although the lineup has changed over the years, Drive-by Truckers have steadily continued to put out their own brand of southern rock.

“Go-Go Boots,” however, marks a distinct change from earlier releases like 2008’s acclaimed “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark,” which included uplifting tracks like “Daddy Needs a Drink” and “You and Your Crystal Meth.” The new album, while still tackling the same dejected characters, has a much lighter touch, adding sarcasm to the depressive mix. This is evident in “The Thanksgiving Filter:” in the midst of singing about an unfortunate family gathering, the vocalist abruptly states “I sure wish I’d smoked me a joint.”

“Assholes” epitomizes the Truckers’ particular talent for subverting the conventions of their particular genre of music—the song has an evident country feel, but functions in a wholly different way. It offers what could be construed as an unapologetic response to a lot of today’s female country stars, who spend entire albums lamenting the wrongs they have suffered at the hands of men. In “Assholes,” the singer addresses someone, presumably an ex-girlfriend, explaining his position as an asshole, rather than denying his own actions. The juxtaposition between the country feel of the song and the Truckers’ bold self-awareness and lyrical maturity makes the band not quite country, and not quite alternative—they have a style all their own.

Despite their tendencies toward satire, the Truckers are capable of putting out conventionally appealing songs. “Go-Go Boots” opens with “I Do Believe,” a melodic track replete with smooth vocals and gentle guitars—just the right ingredients for nostalgia-inducing comfort rock. Since “I Do Believe” lacks the kind of sarcastic indulgences that appear throughout most of the album, it is easily the most mainstream, radio-friendly track on the album. Though “I Do Believe” is a much simpler song musically and lyrically than most others on the album, it still has an element of catchiness that makes even the Truckers’ most traditionally mainstream songs nuanced and enjoyable. However, they do not stray too far into overly-traditional music, and it is telling that a song called “Everybody Needs Love” is followed by “Assholes.”

On the other side of the album’s tonal and thematic spectrum are songs like “Used to Be a Cop,” a tragi-comic narrative of corruption and loss, and “The Fireplace Poker,” a downtrodden account of a murderous reverend. Both songs stretch past seven minutes and are cleverly crafted musical vignettes, harking back to the narrative structure of an old country ballad—a structure now in vogue with bands like the Hold Steady and the Decemberists.

Because the album has three vocalists that rotate from song to song, “Go-Go Boots” does not have a particularly unified feel. Sampling the styles of each vocalist keeps the album exciting, but some of the vocalists are not as compelling as others. The tracks on which female vocalists appear are markedly less self-aware than the male-led tracks, and this shift in tone detracts from the album’s continuity. “Dancin’ Ricky” is excessively hokey, recalling the worst kind of country schlock. Their cover of Eddie Hinton’s “Where’s Eddie,” although it features a more pleasantly restrained vocalist, is equally out of place on the album with its overly simplistic lyrics. The songs on which Hood or Cooley appear as vocalists fit the Truckers’ aesthetic much better, keeping their sarcastic yet honest tone intact.

The Drive-by Truckers understand that while the modern trends in country music may not make for particularly engaging albums, there’s still life in old forms. They remain compelling due to their ability to laugh at themselves and tell some odd stories in the process. It may take skilled musicianship to reel in music snobs, but it takes a good story to make them stay.

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