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Drive-By Truckers

The Big To-Do

[ATO; 2010]

By ; March 16, 2010 

Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOG

Drive-By Truckers is a picture of consistency in a time of tumultuous musical uncertainty. DBT has released an album of critically acclaimed wordy Southern rock at least once every two years since its debut record in 1998. It’s 2010, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark came out in 2008, so that must mean it’s time for another excellent Truckers album.

With The Big To-Do, singer/guitarist/songwriter Patterson Hood makes good on his promise that Drive-By Truckers would return to playing rockers, the early tracks rife with the Truckers’ signature gritty electric guitar foundation. The riff-driven “Daddy Learned to Fly” opens the record with high expectations and a guitar solo. “Birthday Boy” features some sweeping slide guitar work that manages to recall The Wallflowers as much as more traditional southern rock.

Despite the good old Southern-rock riffing, The Big To-Do is a grower. The band’s records have often been this way; the hooks are there, but they take a few spins to sink in. “This Fucking Job,” with its somber minor-key chord progression, seems at first to be an unlikely candidate for a brainworm, but the “Makes it all worthwhile” ending of the chorus has a way of burrowing into the subconscious.

Even more than the fabled “triple axe attack,” the Truckers’ strongest suit has always been in lyrical storytelling. It’s an art Hood and guitarist Mike Cooley have mastered: these songs tell the now-familiar stories of the destitute and downtrodden in the American South. The real allure lies in what the lyrics don’t reveal about the characters and the questions that are left behind: what exactly happened to the narrator’s father in “Daddy Learned to Fly”? Why is Lester turning up dead in “Drag the Lake Charlie” the best-case scenario? These are songs that reveal more about themselves on repeated listens. No doubt it would take an explanation from the songwriters to fully illuminate the meaning behind the lyrics, but that would take away some of the fun.

Fans are still waiting for the perfect DBT record, one that always seems to be just out of reach, though some may argue that goal was achieved back in 2001 with Southern Rock Opera. No doubt the band’s sparkling discography eliminates the need for an Exile on Main Street-like achievement – how could anyone ask for more from one of the best rock bands of the past decade? – but it certainly doesn’t seem impossible.

Unfortunately, The Big To-Do is not that perfect record. For the purposes of its stylistic emphasis on a return to rock, Shonna Tucker’s tracks number too many and Mike Cooley’s number too few. Cooley’s songs have often been the hardest-hitting ones on DBT’s past albums, yet he only takes the lead on three cuts from The Big To-Do and one of those is album-closer “Eyes Like Glue,” a pretty acoustic ballad. In Tucker’s “You Got Another,” listeners get another ballad. It’s a nice country slow burner, but it derails the album just as it was starting to pick up steam. And listeners hoping for another “Where the Devil Don’t Stay” or “Lookout Mountain” will be disappointed to find that nothing here rocks that hard.

Fans may still be waiting for the album that sums up Drive-By Truckers’ terrific career, but The Big To-Do is far better than a stopgap. For the past 12 years, no group has more regularly produced such high quality rock music. The only shame is how few people are aware of the fact. But, with this kind of consistency, people are bound to start noticing.


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