, March 7th, 2014 05:21
Comings and goings aren't anything new to Drive-By Truckers – the acrimonious 2007 exit of singer/songwriter Jason Isbell is just the most dramatic example of its ongoing lineup carousel. But even so, the last few years have been especially tough. In December 2011, bassist and songwriter Shonna Tucker, an anchor of the group's sound for the last eight years, said goodbye. And this past January, beloved merch manager (and occasional third-guitarist during encores) Craig Lieske died suddenly of a heart attack. "What he did, and what he did on paper were two different things," explained bandleader Patterson Hood in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution interview. "On paper, he took care of our merchandise. But what he really was, was our ambassador."
This all goes to explain the decidedly defeatist sentiment that runs through English Oceans, a record that jettisons the Truckers' usual gritty, conceptual storytelling for broader explorations about the things that make human beings feel hollow. "You climb up to the roof to smoke a few / And calm down from your day and soak the view / And you wonder what the hell you're gonna do / To hang on," sings Hood, from the perspective of a failed musician who mooches off his mother. Hood and Mike Cooley, the only original members left, handle all of the songwriting for the first time since the band's 1998 debut, and it makes for a unity of vision that prevents the grief from sounding gratuitous, that makes the uncertainties resonate with our own.
And while the record represents a bit of a lyrical sea change for the group, it sounds nothing like Sea Change. Drive-By Truckers' experience crafting believably ragged Americana is on display throughout; at this point it's second nature for them to craft riffs and melodies that are as un-showy as they are infectious.
Cooley's opening 'Shit Shots Count' boasts a grimy, 'Tumbling Dice'-indebted bar band groove that completely makes good on its title; the late-album booster shot 'Natural Light' brings that same vibe to a saloon at last call; 'The Part of Him' features the kind of cascading guitar chords that would suit a hoedown in a barn with powerful chi.
Not to say that the production doesn't contribute to English Oceans' ruminative tone. Like their heroes (and concept album inspirations) in Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Truckers have always been known for their muscular three-guitar attack, and while this is still six-string-fueled stuff, it's more 'Tuesday's Gone' than 'Gimme Three Steps.' Third guitarist Jay Gonzalez finds himself at the keyboard more often than not, with some moving results – that sad-sack moocher song, 'Hanging On', gets its mystique from his reverberating piano chords.
Drive-By Truckers is at the point in its career arc when it would be acceptable to plateau out – just lean on those abilities and crank out well-crafted imitations of your best material. But on English Oceans, life's big questions loom too large. It ends with the stunning 'Grand Canyon,' a song dedicated to Leiske in which Hood opines about Technicolor sunsets and the white owls of his dreams.
He's not plateauing. He's mountaineering.