Drive By Truckers - English Oceans
Review: Drive-By Truckers - English Oceans
The Drive-By Truckers have crafted this weird dynamic, mainly due to their enigmatic man on the ground Patterson Hood. They're thoroughbred country hard men, complete with tall tale and yarn spinning prowess, who feel. I'm not saying they engage in letter writing, relationship counselling, rom-com marathons or star gazing, but there is a depth of emotion that bleeds through that you rarely find on modern country records. You could call them a loose collective, with the core duo Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley the focal point. Cooley is the more straight-laced of the two. His Southern roots dive deeply, and you'd be more likely to find him at your local brandishing a weapon at 4am than his band mates. Patterson Hood is the true gem. His brand of Cash storytelling mixed with Bon Iver longing and the brash honesty that Eminem has championed renders him a personality to be reckoned with.
The Truckers have employed a revolving door policy to band members. The openess and more country-focused Jason Isbell brought a distinct twang to their earlier records, and his wife (at the time) Shonna Tucker added a deeper root of old school bass, reminiscient of the work Larry Paxton is doing. By 2011, with the release of the staggering Go-Go Boots, the Truckers had hit on the winning formula. A triumph of country storytelling fused with an innate sense of melody, it defined the genre in a way that many have attempted but few have replicated since Johnny Cash.
In an interview with Nashville Scene in early 2013, the dynamic of English Oceans became abundantly clear. Cooley, speaking on the differing styles employed by himself and Hood, wrote that whilst Hood's stories had a distinct beginning, middle and end, his own were more vague, less re-tellings of events and more deconstructions of them. There's a tendency in country music now to split the difference. One half chases the most lucrative of markets, guys like Jake Owen and Brad Paisley. Then there are the purists, like Isbell, who favour the old school tradition of tawng and heavy lifting. Hood and Cooley delve deeply in to the broth of what makes something inherently country, yet their talent is such that each track lingers long after that first listen, immediately recognisable months after the event.
English Oceans isn't their best record. It isn't even in their top three. The first sign of a disconnect from their usual dynamic is Cooley's brutal opening track, Shit Shots Count. Right at the end, he spits "Pride is what you charge a proud man for having. / Shame is what you sell to a whore", enunciating the word whore with uncontrolled malice. On the very next track, over a similarly aggressive guitar based piece, Patterson Hood sings "She paints a smile on her lips, and looks at herself in the mirror / as her day begins". This is the trademark view of women on a Truckers record, which is why it throws you at first when Cooley almost attacks a profession that they've been quite lenient on in the past. On Go-Go Boots, Hood describes with glee the dealings of an adulterous relationship, and on Everybody Needs Love the masses are preached for.
Whilst you'd never say that this is a concept record, or that they've previously walked this path, the Truckers have always stuck to a loose narrative that's permeated the push and pull of individual songs. On English Oceans, it feels as though Cooley and Hood are pulling in, if not opposite directions, then ones that are going to see them slowly drift apart. On the mournful Pauline Hawkins, Hood tries his hand at an anger and dismissiveness that doesn't suit his voice at all. In fact surprisingly, it is Hood who appears most lacklustre. As he sings "He was indifferent to honesty" on The Part Of Him, there's a real fizzle of the fire and pent up emotion that has so coloured his previous work with the Truckers, and his brilliant 2012 solo record, Heat Lightning Rumbles In The Distance. He redeems himself on the biographical When Walter Went Crazy, an almost spoken word tale reminiscient of the frank nature employed on Ray's Automatic Weapon (Go-Go Boots). The albums hidden beauty is the final track, Grand Canyon, in which Hood presents a tale of loss inspired by the death of a crew member Craig Lieske over the top of an initially melancholic backing that gradually becomes more anthemic, rising to meet his voice, "My dreams I can still see, falling through a western sky". It's his best contribution.
Cooley is the key. His traditional role hasn't been songwriting, and that shows in the immediate change of pace from previous Truckers work. It feels less sprawling, more focused and tight. He brings a real knowledge and love of heavier guitar work, mixed in with an inner energy that drags songs along. On Made Up English Oceans there is constant forward motion, and on Primer Coat he throws an old school saloon vibe in to the mix, yet delivers his most reflective story, "It comes to women and they survive, but when the same comes to men / someone comes for their babies, something dies there and then", as he celebrates the strength of the southern woman in the face of adversity. A long cry from his initial sentiments. Ultimately it is Cooley who drives this record, with Patterson Hood more than content to take a backseat. The gravel soaked blues of Til He's Dead or Rises again name checks the fairer sex, yet he blurs the lines between empowerment and weakness to compulsion as he explores the sexual prowess of the central figure and her desire to get what she wants from her man whether he is a willing participant or not. It all feels a tad discordant.
Overall, this is an immediate let down on the previous work of DBT. Too often the sound is thrown around in different spaces, and a heavier attitude to contrast with the almost soulful Go-Go Boots is not in keeping with their contemporary sound. Cooley was excited that with the reduction of members, DBT could channel more of their original country roots and really hone a singular sound. Unfortunately, whilst it doest at times sound more consistent than their previous work, the roots in that soulful experiment still remain, and Hood hasn't quite snapped out of that phase yet.