ATO RECORDS 30th September 2016
This record wants to be taken seriously and, at this juncture in American history, it deserves to be heard. Thing is, it’s a rallying call, a confirmation to the like-minded, a creed – it’s not something to convince the other side and, as the band describe the American public in What It Means, they are “two sides, calling names, out of hatred, out of fear”.
Drive-By Truckers are a Southern Rock band that go to pains to be the antithesis of the good ol’ boys, casual racism and narrow-mindedness of stereotypical Alabama boys; not that the stereotype was ever true. They turn out sounds typical of bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers but owing more, frequently, to Canadian Neil Young. There’s a three-guitar attack and multi-guitar boogie or gentle-paced fuzzy strumming to accompany tales. And there’s lots of tales; this is a state of the nation address, a set of pictures of the wrongs of modern day America. There’s the odd big chorus and some short solos. I want them to rip loose, as they do live, to soar and jam.
Opener, Ramon Casiano, is the scene-setter, about how the founder of the National Rifle Association murdered a Mexican teenager in 1931. They revisit guns more than once, as well as indignation, protest, police brutality, poverty and race. “I wanted to piss off the assholes”, says Mike Cooley, one of the band’s two lyricists. Guns pop up again in Guns Of Umpqua; gentle strum, sweet guitar figure, lulling us through idyllic images of morning towards a school shooting. Trayvon Martin turns up in What It Means, shot, as he was, empty handed, with a pocket of Skittles sweets. “Barack Obama won and you can choose who to hate, but you don’t see too many white kids lying bleeding in the street”.
It’s not all shooting, and Filthy And Fried is deeply melancholic, sadly describing the predictable lives manufactured by the perpetuating nature of capitalist poverty. They shine a different light on migration with Ever South, where they work through their Irish and Scots ancestors’ journeys south through the Appalachians and west, bringing their traditions with them. Once They Banned Imagine is the hoary old chestnut about the 150-song anti-playlist Clear Channel drew up immediately after the September 11th attacks in America. As well as ruling out songs about fires and jumping, it cut out Imagine, a drippy song of hippy love. The band feel that “once they banned imagine, it became the same war it’s always been”.
They’ve done themes before. It’s not so long since Southern Rock Opera, a double album exploring the authors’ roots. In fact, over twenty years and eleven studio albums, the band has tried to confound expectations. The result, here, is worthy and interesting but unlikely to grab you – in the same way that Nebraska didn’t win Springsteen new fans. The lyrics are good but they need stronger tunes. Someone like Robb Johnson in the UK, can turn out a memorable song about a news event almost at the drop of a hat and I’d love to hear that strength of tune backing up this material. Hmmmm, need to look out some Drive-By Truckers gig recordings…….