One of my favorite rowdy bands has grown up a bit, and the result is an album that demonstrates that kick-ass rock can be mature. “English Oceans” is a great album even without the bar-fighting brashness of earlier masterworks like “Southern Rock Opera”. It’s not a blunting of their edginess, but more of a skilled economy in wielding the blade.
The album is split between songs of singer-guitarists and co-founding members Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. Hood has a provocative, nasally voice that combines the best qualities of Neil Young and Mick Jagger with a southern twang, while Cooley sounds a bit like Willie Nelson and Brad Roberts from the Crash Test Dummies. Hood sounds like the guy who would get you into a bar fight, and Cooley sounds like the guy who would calmly tell you to take it outside.
As in past efforts, the Drive-By Truckers succeed when they are portraying characters from the ragged edge of the American south. “Pauline Hawkins” is an anti-romantic number that brings outstanding guitar riffs along with lyrics that start out :
Don’t call me your baby
I won’t answer
Love is like cancer
And I am immune
I doubt that one will be the first dance at many weddings, but it’s a heck of a song, and probably the most rocking song of the album.
It’s hard to pick a single favorite song off this album, because they cover so many moods and styles. “Natural Light” is a juke-box Western swing number with masterful guitar work stealing the show. “First Air of Autumn” is a calm, beautiful song that will make you hit “repeat”. “Primer Coat” echoes the guitar work of REM, and features the phrase “A girl as plain as a primer coat.” “Made Up English Oceans” mixes the sound of a spaghetti western ballad with a sharp summation of Lee Atwater and his tea-bagger spawn – “Once you grab them by their pride their hearts are bound to follow/Their natural fear of anything less manly or less natural.” “Grand Canyon” is a simply beautiful tribute to a member of their tour group who died suddenly – “I wonder how a life so sturdy could just one day cease to be.”
Like I said above, the only thing this album lacks is some of the cocky brashness of their earlier work, but it isn’t missed. I love the all-knowing sophomoric authority assumed in a song like “The Three Great Alabama Icons“, and I will never tire of “Let There Be Rock”, but those songs are steeped in a brand of swagger that is tough to maintain over a full career. An album like “English Oceans”, with its slightly more pensive outlook combined with solid southern rock, makes me believe that the Drive-By Truckers aren’t going to fade away.
Next up: G I R L, by Pharrell Williams