As far as gateway bands go, I can’t think of another one who has made me change my views on a genre as much as Drive-By Truckers. Before them, I had written off pretty much every country band or singer. After hearing the Truckers 2008 album Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, I realised country really has its merits when done well. And while that appreciation has lead me to newer stuff like Chris Shifflett and the Dead Peasants, and older stuff like Waylon Jennings, there’s still nothing in country music that gets me more pumped than the release of a new Drive-By Truckers album. And it’s that time again, with English Oceans.
For me, I don’t know if story telling songwriters come any better in 2014 than this band. Lead Trucker, Patterson Hood, can make any story sound lived in and vintage, vital and fresh all at the same time. And proof of Mike Cooley’s invaluable contributions can be found in the fact that while he generally only contributes about half as many tracks as Hood to any album, those half as many are always stand outs. In the case of English Oceans, he starts as strong as ever with Primer Coat, about a man old before his time, “graduated in ’84, quit drinkin’ in ‘92”. It’s got that signature Cooley drawl that gives anything he sings undeniable gravitas.
Pauline Hawkins is a call and response between Hood’s voice and Cooley’s guitar, before the closing out duelling solo. A sound that’s almost signature to Drive-By Truckers, who have figured out a way to pile on the layers, without ever collapsing under the weight.
Things almost turn into a 50s cowboy TV show theme tune with Made Up English Oceans. It’s bouncing bass line and rolling drums walk through what sounds like the setup for some sort of western epic.
The Part of Him shows that Hood isn’t content to just write amazing lyrics, but come up with music to match. The driving main riff, the interaction between his voice and guitar, the way everything works in perfect unison, means no single instrument or band member steals focus at any time. It’s like an old grandfather clock, and everyone knows exactly which precisely placed gear they are.
A weird combo of country vocals, almost honky tonk piano and unexpected sentiment, The Natural Light sticks out the most on English Oceans, while also coming at the perfect time to mix things up as the final third of the album begins to head toward the finish. It’s also the perfect lead in to When Walter Went Crazy, by far the most restrained, stripped back offering, an obvious breather before closing things out.
And English Oceans closes things out on a surprisingly positive note, with the finger picking optimism of First Air of Autumn, before Grand Canyon, an almost epic that feels like it’s always just holding itself back from becoming an actual epic.
One of the most impressive things about Drive-By Truckers is their ability to stay within their shit kickin’ country sound, while still giving each album its own individual personality. 2001’s Southern Rock Opera was the kind of concept album its title would suggest. Brighter Than Creation’s Dark was all introspection and restraint. In 2011, Go Go Boots was almost a raucous party record. With English Oceans, they make it about the individual stories, but as disparate as they may seem from one another in some ways, they all work together to make a single, coherent album.
But if I can’t convince you to listen to this album, Marc Maron’s awesome interview with Patterson Hood should do the trick.