The Drive-By Truckers
Decoration Day isn't likely to receive the same kind of press attention as the Drive-By Truckers' last album, Southern Rock Opera --it doesn't have as obvious or novel a hook -- but it's a truer, deeper, better record. And it's also a concept record of sorts, named for an unofficial holiday (the basis for Memorial Day but now a Southern- and church-specific occasion, if I have my research right) in which the dead are remembered, when flowers are brought to decorate their graves.
There's a lot of death on this record -- suicides, murders, divorces. (When I interviewed the band's Patterson Hood earlier this year, this last topic came up so frequently and so casually that I couldn't bring myself to ask how many divorces he and his bandmates had been through.) But, as the title hints, this album is a way of honoring and remembering their dead, which manifests itself near the end in three straight songs about suicides, the last two, Mike Cooley's "When the Pin Hits the Shell" and Hood's "Do It Yourself," presumably about the same real-life friend (both songs mention a sister and son left behind) and almost unbearably cold (Hood's is a taunt driven by the album's most anthemic music).
The wrecked marriages are handled with humor and decency --the clearly fictional "My Sweet Annette" the story of a bride left at the altar from the unexpected perspective of the fleeing groom, "Give Pretty Soon" a realization that "Something's gotta give pretty soon/Or else we're gonna hate each other/And that would be the saddest thing I ever seen" and "Sounds Better in the Song" an admission that "Outgrowing me might be the best thing for her she's ever done." In this context, Cooley's "Marry Me" sounds like some kind of cosmic joke, though it sums up so much of what's great about this band, cribbing its boogie riffs directly from the Eagles but opening with a lyric the Eagles would never have had the honesty or self-awareness to come up with: "Rock-and-roll means well, but it can't help telling young boys lies."
The murders described are pretty clearly fictional -- Hood's "Sink Hole" about a farmer who offs a visiting banker and the most by-the-numbers song here; new singer/guitarist Jason Isbell's title track is a brutal tale of an archetypal family feud. (Is it fair for one band to hoard three songwriters this talented?) But the band displays a knack this time around for telling other people's stories. Hood's opening "The Deeper In" baits Southern-stereotype-wielding critics with an incest tale ripped from a newspaper story, but the song, a bluegrass-inflected dirge that opens a cappella, might be among his most moving creations.
Where Southern Rock Opera was musical Grit Lit on a macro level -- "The Three Great Alabama Icons," "the duality of the Southern thing," etc. --Decoration Day is micro, the band's regional ardor conveyed offhandedly and in the details, like Hood opening a song with the lyric "Something about the wrinkle in your forehead tells me there's a fit about to get thrown" or Cooley's small-town contentment on "Marry Me."
As a whole, Decoration Day's relationship to Southern Rock Opera is sort of like Darkness on the Edge of Town's relationship to Born to Run, a darker, more modest but razor-sharp and diamond-hard follow-up to a showy, epic breakthrough. Or to put it in terms of another of the band's heroes, it might be their own version of Neil Young's Tonight's the Night, an equally gritty and sardonic rock-and-roll paean to lost friends. You certainly wouldn't expect an album essentially about suicide, failed marriages, and legacies of regret and violence to be invigorating. This one is.
-- Chris Herrington
The Drive-By Truckers will perform Saturday, June 14th, at the Mud Island Amphitheatre as part of the kickoff of the Memphis Jam concert series. Tickets are $3 and showtime is 6 p.m. Also on the opening bill are Blues Traveler, Will Hoge, and New Blood Revival.
The Gospel Collection
The Cadillac of country music is a little bit rusty. It's seen a lot of hard road, and the engine knocks and the tires are low on tread. But in spite of all the wear and tear, George Jones can still take you where you need to go. And nowadays he takes you there through pure skill and know-how as his once-golden throat has turned more and more to tin with every year and every liver-severing accident. He can't honk like he once did, and his malleable tenor has developed a distinctive rasp. But his phrasing is no less agile, and his delivery no less honest. Jones still sounds like he's singing not so much for you as to you. And, to edify the Toby Keiths of this world, that makes all the difference.
That said, The Gospel Collection, a double-CD containing two dozen Protestant standards, has more than its share of downsides. The string sections sound like digital samples, and the perfect but perfectly forgettable band arrangements reek of assembly-line country. Fortunately, a tight harmony quartet, sounding like the Oak Ridge Boys in their gospel heyday before they went pop and became the GOP house band, more than fills in where the musicians leave off. And Jones' performance is, if not exactly gorgeous, still inspired.
You don't have to be a Christian to understand or be moved by the more-human-than divine underpinnings of "Peace in the Valley," "Mansion over the Hilltop," or "I'll Fly Away." They are all tasty blues byproducts, or is it the other way around? Either way you cut it, they have plenty of secular appeal. But in Jones' hands even "The Old Rugged Cross" could make a Roman centurion melt. The upbeat quartet standard "Have a Little Talk with Jesus," about the joys of complaining to the Lord, is about as good as country gospel gets, and minus the so-silly-it's-too-beautiful-to-cut intro, the cover of Willie Nelson's "The Family Bible" is as good as any to date.
But really, though there isn't a bad cut in the bunch, there isn't a truly memorable one either. The Gospel Collection is another solid reason why Jones should follow the likes of Cash and Haggard to an indie label and find a caring producer who would have stripped these arrangements down and cranked up the quartet to showcase Jones' enduring talent. -- Chris Davis