J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

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Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Drive-by Truckers - The Dirty South (New West Records - 2004):

There's a great tradition in rock and roll of bands with multiple songwriters eventually having to give it up. Their egos, desires for more exposure for songs they think are golden and other things just get in the way and force the split. Lou Barlow, George Harrison, Jeff Tweedy, Richard Hell; all examples of great songwriters who were, in one way or another, somewhat limited in their previous band-incarnations.

Which brings us to the Drive-by Truckers, a band featuring no less than three really excellent songwriters in the form of de-facto band front man Patterson Hood and guitarists Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell. Even as recently as five years ago the vast majority of the band's songs were crafted by Hood. Slowly that began to change and reached a new level of diversity on 2001's Southern Rock Opera. Mike Cooley was responsible for five of that record's twenty songs and his were definitely on par with Hood's work. Then it got even more tangled with the addition of Isbell. Not only were his two songs some of the best from 2003's Decoration Day, but he had penned the album's title track. Hood and Cooley split the remaining thirteen (9 and 4, respectively) between themselves.

Now comes The Dirty South, featuring a Hood/Cooley/Isbell split of 6/4/4. Not to mention that in the great tradition of bands with multiple songwriters, the Truckers follow the "you wrote it, you sing it" rule of thumb. And the excellent arrangement of the songs on this record present a collection not dominated by any one member. Indeed, thanks to the profuse writing on all three members' account, no single songwriter's songs appear back to back at any point on the album. It creates a stunning aural collection that may just be the best album that the Truckers have made.

Three things stick out on this album: the hooks, the softer songs and the more diverse instrumentation. First, the hooks: "Where the Devil Don't Stay" opens the album with an absolutely torrential guitar attack. "The Day John Henry Died" shows off Isbell's ability to craft a tight, catchy song just the same as Cooley and Hood. Cooley drops the absolutely stunning "Carl Perkins' Cadillac" as proof that Decoration Day's "Marry Me" was no fluke in the supreme songwriting chops department. Finally Hood's "Lookout Mountain" is a monster of a song, barrelling down as if out of the peaks themselves. The thick country and southern rock influences are in place, as are the big guitar attacks of Thin Lizzy, making quite a combination as it always has.

The softer songs are a slightly new concoction, at least in the sheer success that they have on this album. Isbell seems to be the one most at home in this style, submitting the sad and mesmerising "Danko/Manuel" and the absolutely beautiful album closer, "Goddamn Lonely Love." Hood pens the frightening "Tornadoes" as a wonderful immediate follower to the crunching opener and Cooley's "Cottonseed" is a twisting reflection on Deep South outlaw life.

Finally, the instrumentation branches out in ways that it hasn't managed on their previous guitar dominated albums. The guitars still are (and no doubt will always be) the centerpiece of each song. But organs, pianos and banjos inhabit the once empty spaces of these songs, creating whole new atmospheres of beauty. These are the things that make the softer songs come to life in ways that they had not on the earlier outings.

Witnessing the Truckers live is an experience in itself, but it is their consistant production of jaw-dropping songwriting and albums that is keeping them constantly on the tongue of people who still believe in the soul-saving power of rock and roll. The Dirty South is yet another amazing entry into the cannon of a band that has yet to misfire. With the songwriting share now at near equinox, the band is finding the balance that proves all their voices have something sincere and sharp to say and the outcome is undeniably a band heading towards, if not reaching, its peak. This is easily one of the best albums of 2004 so far.

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