Drive-By Truckers – English Oceans

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Twelve albums into their career, and DBT seems to be a band that just can’t hit on all of its cylinders.  Gone is guitarist John Neff, who didn’t contribute to the songwriting, but he was at least a third option for some lead guitar.

That matters.

Fans such as myself who look back to Southern Rock Opera, Decoration Day, and The DIrty South remember a band that took its shots, at all that is wrong with the world lyrically but often enough with a musical punch to the face.  They possessed an odd space of literate socialhomepage_large.3542898f commentary on the southern man while working it into southern anthemic rock.

Lately, it’s been... mature.

Mike Cooley deserves most of the credit on English Oceans, their latest.  He, by his own admission, hit a rut the past several years, and his song narratives ventured as narrowly as his one trick pony song delivery.  Call it a country song, or sometimes a rock song, but they sounded too much the same. 

This time, he’s about his wits again, and touches on the usual rants on life (“Sh*t Shots Count”), the circle of life when a man’s daughter marries (“Primer Coat”), the mistakes of others (“Hearing Jimmy Loud”), and the passing of time and romance (“Natural Light,” “First Air of Autumn”).

A few lyrical keepers (from different songs):

She had a tanning habit,
She’s like a talking leather couch
Warm between the cushions where she hid whatever treasure fell out

Memory only shows the promise beauty broke
of beauty ageless in its time
Light attracts the same, you glance away and the glory fades
and being on your arm has lost its shine

Suburban four lanes move like blood through an old mans dying heart
Enough at a time to keep hope alive at the speed of a stream of tar
He bought in young and I’ve no doubt, he’s gonna cash out with a winning hand
Trophy tail wives taking boner pill rides for the price of a happy meal

Patterson Hood, the other founder/cowriter of the group, returns with his usual assortment of narratives, generally listless but at least more abbreviated than in recent years.  It’s not bad, but nothing blows you away, either.  “When Walter Went Crazy,” as well stated as it is, sounds like something he wrote about 8 years ago and every year since.

To give the band some credit, there is a somewhat new vibe to be found.  Most of Cooley’s songs, particularly, benefit from being sung and adorned in different ways that make them refreshing.  That said, this CD sounds like a band focused on its songwriting but forgetful of their sound.

Fans will find some favorites, but after half a dozen listens, there’s not a single song that comes to mind for a memorable riff.  And lead guitar?  Well, there’s a lot of electric wailing, but there’s nothing with a worthwhile shape or form.   Simply, there’s nothing musically that captures the listener’s attention, never mind emotion.  And this is a shame, because the song writing is a notch above their last few releases. 

That said, organist Jay Gonzalez, who is heard on their CDs as much as he is in concert (almost never), finds a happy place on the mixing boards on tracks 8-10.  It’s not the sound for which most DBT fans will hope, but I suppose it’s appropriate for a band that seems intent not only to comment on the passing of time but playing it so that it doesn’t hurt old folks’ ears.

3 of 5 STARS



Recommended Songs: “Primer Coat” and “First Air of Autumn”

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