The Big To-Do
Label: ATO Records
Critics’ darlings since their inception in 1996, the Drive-By Truckers have run roughshod over the implications and misconceptions assigned by the term “Southern rock.” That’s small feat considering their catalog: “Women Without Whiskey,” “Plastic Flowers on the Highway,” “This Fucking Job,” “Loaded Gun in the Closet” and “The Fourth Night of My Drinking” imply a band beleaguered by cliché. Booze, broads, poverty and death – this Southern Gothic novel writes itself. But don’t mistake the Truckers for a bunch of wisecracking hicks hootin’ and hollerin’ with half-baked rebel yells. Their seminal work, Southern Rock Opera, is a two-disc magnum opus that uses the rise and crash of Lynryd Skynyrd as a conduit for anthropological commentary on Southern culture past and present. Having merited that coveted four-star review in 2001 from Rolling Stone among all and sundry notable accolades, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, founders and frontmen of the Drive-By Truckers, revealed themselves not only to be kick-in-the-mouth rock musicians but remarkably nuanced scholar-lyricists. Indeed, critics have often likened them to “a thinking man’s Skynyrd.” Far from a contradiction in terms, the Truckers would say that it’s all attributable to the “duality of the Southern thing.”
Nine years, six albums and four line-up changes later, the Truckers commemorate a very busy 2010 with the release of The Big To-Do, the first of two studio albums slated for issue this year. The cast of characters this time around is the same that populated their last studio release, 2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark: Cooley and Hood, shouldering the bulk of the songwriting duties, are joined by Shonna Tucker on bass, Brad Morgan on drums, John Neff on guitars and pedal steel and Jay Gonzalez on keyboards. This is a full line-up for sure and the Truckers play it just right. Known for their “three axe attack,” one expects a tornado of dueling guitars – amplified distortions, solo upon insufferable solo and crowded melodies trampling each other for glory and dominance. Luckily, these dudes are secure enough in their sizable, er, musicianship to not succumb to the guitar-as-penis trap (a salute to you too, Shonna!).
The Big To-Do, by way of long-time friend and producer David Barbe, manages to corral an orchestra-load of sounds into near perfect balance. The incremental build from a chiming piano chord to the sweep and swell of a polyphonic climax in “You Got Another” puts the torch in torch song. But by no means is this a lovelorn affair – the opening track, “Daddy Learned to Fly,” gives the crash cymbals a blistering workout. For at its heart, The Big To-Do is a straight-up rock record, perhaps the most lean and mean effort of their storied career. The thing about the Truckers is they are always performing at full-tilt, even – and perhaps especially – when they are exhibiting restraint. The staccato guitar plucks underpin a creepy spoken word effect in “The Wig He Made Her Wear,” a song-cum-news-bulletin that recounts the details of Mary Winkler’s shotgun murder of her perverted pastor husband. On the other end of the continuum, a chirpy pedal steel complements Tucker’s sunny vocals in “(It’s Gonna Be) I Told You So.” And “Drag the Lake Charlie,” a gallows humor tale about the marital consequences of an all-night bender (“Better keep your fingers crossed/ And hope you find him drowned/ Wanda’s gonna come and kill us all/ If he shows up in town“), is quite possibly the only song ever in which I found myself hankering for more handclaps (!). The Truckers have a seemingly limitless arsenal of talent and possess an expert sense of when to unload the assault and when to draw down.
Thematically, the Truckers latch it down on The Big To-Do, tapping into the workaday concerns of a population slogging through a depressed economy. Previous concept albums like Southern Rock Opera and Decoration Day – in which you’ll find a three song tribute to Buford Pusser, the legendary Tennessee sheriff whose career earned him eight bullet holes and seven stab wounds – took a more esoteric bent. The Big To-Do is more one-act-play than doctoral thesis: “This Fucking Job” is the centerpiece of the record, echoing the sentiments of, well, the 90.3% of us (if recent statistics are to be believed) that are lucky enough to have a job. Hood gives voice to the Misery Index, singing “Working this job is a kick in the pants/ Working this job is like a knife in the back/ It ain’t gettin’ me farther from the dump I’m livin’/ It ain’t gettin’ me further than the next paycheck.” Not to be outdone, Cooley answers back in “Get Downtown,” a lively two-steppin’ ditty about the “unemployment blues.” There is humor in all of this – there’s got to be in times like these – and Cooley lets us peek through the window: “Kim said, ‘Jimmy, you’d better get yourself up off that raggedy couch/ I’m too pretty to work/ And I’m tired of you uglyin’ up my house.'” Still, there is allegory to be had on the album; “The Flying Wallendas,” a dark yet airy narrative describing tragedy on the flying trapeze, is hard-luck parable brought to life by a pendulum of careful arpeggios.
The Drive-By Truckers, never preachy or prescriptive, always seem to nail it. They certainly have made a fantastic album in The Big To-Do – and the only reason it’s not “groundbreaking” is that they’ve already broken this ground, to much acclaim. This is a neat and uncluttered record, straightforward in its instrumentation and direct in its message. Tucker’s two contributions – “You Got Another” and “(It’s Gonna Be) I Told You So” – break up the bristly beards with some cowpunk pigtail, and the contrast adds another dimension to their low-rent (but irresistible) sexiness. This ain’t your anarchist cheerleaders’ flannel anymore, folks. Fill that tumbler with sweet tea or – even better – some J.D. (but be careful, on sight they look identical!) and put your boots on: the Drive-By Truckers with their big brains and sickly talented chops take us for a ride as the South rises again…