English Oceans, by the Drive-By Truckers (Album of the Week)

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.”

Robin really likes this album. Even though she was horribly misguided in her appreciation of Damien Jurado, she redeems her musical taste by her love of this album.

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

One Response to “English Oceans, by the Drive-By Truckers (Album of the Week)”

  1. [...] English Oceans was Dan’s pick. I think he may have chosen this one because of the stomping I gave him last week when we went at it over Damien Jurado. If his way of making up is to provide me with a week of listening to Drive By Truckers, we may need to have a blog disagreement more often. We both agree that this one is a winner. [...]

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