The membership of Drive-By Truckers has been a revolving door of talent for, God, nearly 20 years already, and one can feel this on English Oceans. Not because it seeps with the aged wisdom of two decades’ experience—rather, it feels a bit like an old group of getting-up-in-years rockers playing a lot of safe cards, a few new ones and a relaxing on their name and talent.
The band’s pushing the festival circuit this year, with appearances at Bonnaroo and Free Press. This is a good thing. Many of DBT’s songs feel less like songs than springboards for live jams – especially the eight-minute finale, “Grand Canyon”, probably the band’s most atmospheric, least apologetic, most deeply spiritual track to date. It is based on the recent death of Craig Lieske, the band’s merch manager and a local staple of the Athens, Georgia music scene. “Grand Canyon” feels like a Santana-Springsteen medley, complete with the emotive dips and peaks of any good rock ballad, part-eulogy and part-storytelling.
Drive-By Truckers’ “Shit Shots Count”
The song also feels like it was written to be performed live, which is a good thing for this band. Their songs are fun, but their overall sound is weaker than it once was. They can’t rely on pure musicianship anymore, if they ever could. After all, they’ve gained most of their clout for biting, playful, succinct Southern poetry of a piece with Sam Shepard. Now DBT’s words sound sometimes frankly dumb. Consider “Pauline Hawkins”, whose emotional outpour is substantially less engaging than even the lyrics I’m about to copy down: “Don’t call me your baby / I’m nobody’s baby / I won’t let you cage me / Or lock me away / I’m not yours to keep.” This is not the stuff of powerful metaphor. Yes – it’s meant to be a harrowing exploration of abusive relationships, but this is, well, just a bit boring.
That said, there are definitely successes as well. “Shit Shots Count” kicks the album off with a high-energy Southern rock, full of subtly self-deprecating witticisms and fun rhymes (“They don’t pay you enough to work / But they don’t pay me enough to bitch”); meanwhile, “Made Up of English Oceans” chugs brilliantly on with this great Americana western driving feel, steady and quickly spoken, with stream-of-consciousness commentary running along so viscerally you could imagine an 24-hour trucker soliloquizing along, ten-o’clock-shadow thick and grizzled, staring straight ahead into the night.
This is where DBT does things right—moments where they exploit the purity of their wizened sound, instead of relying on country-pop conventions. They can’t afford it any more. They’re too old for that.
Written by Michael Fraiman
OurVinyl | Contributor