Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Drive-By Truckers

  • Pizza Deliverance [Soul Dump/Ghostmeat, 1999] A-
  • Alabama Ass Whuppin' [secondheaven.com, 2000] *
  • Southern Rock Opera [www.drivebytruckers.com, 2001] A-
  • Decoration Day [New West, 2003] A-
  • The Dirty South [New West, 2004] A-
  • A Blessing and a Curse [New West, 2006] ***
  • Brighter Than Creation's Dark [New West, 2008] A
  • The Fine Print (A Collection of Oddities and Rarities): 2003-2008 [New West, 2009] A-
  • Live From Austin TX [New West, 2009] B+
  • The Big To-Do [ATO, 2010] ***
  • Go-Go Boots [ATO, 2011] A-
  • English Oceans [ATO, 2014] A
  • American Band [ATO, 2016] A

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Pizza Deliverance [Soul Dump/Ghostmeat, 1999]
Rockers playing sorta-country with rough enthusiasm and nothing like a sound, they make their mark detailing the semivoluntary poverty DIY musicians share with the highly subsuburban constituency they imagine. These are people who'd love to have more money, shit yes, but don't know the first thing about kissing ass, people who think six-packs are necessities of life and Dixie Chicks CDs aren't. So they fuck up as a life principle and then write or listen to songs about it--songs about getting loaded and screwing your sister-in-law, about shooting that lady at the laundromat who stole your sock. About fucking up just like your daddy. About G.G. Allin changing your life, never mind exactly how. A-

Alabama Ass Whuppin' [secondheaven.com, 2000]
Loads of stories, not much music ("The Living Bubba," "Don't Be in Love Around Me"). *

Southern Rock Opera [www.drivebytruckers.com, 2001]
The alt-country reprobates enter three-guitar heaven on a what-it-says-it-is that gains power and bite as the fat lady's moment approaches. When Patterson Hood lets his bandmates write songs on the first disc, you can take a piss break, but Mike Cooley and Rob Malone both contribute winners on the second--about alcoholism and Cassie Gaines easing her brother into Lynyrd Skynyrd, respectively. Although George Wallace is treated to a crucial cameo, Skynyrd are the tragic heroes throughout. The last three songs get them on the plane, up in the air, and plummeting to their doom. Every detail and digression tells. A-

Decoration Day [New West, 2003]
First six songs are perfect--incest, elopement, foreclosure, and "Hell No, I Ain't Happy" from main man Patterson Hood, Stones song of a bitterness that passeth superstar understanding from second banana Mike Cooley, and young Jason Isbell hitting the road with his dad's blessing: "Have fun but stay clear of the needle/Call home on your sister's birthday/Don't tell them you're bigger than Jesus/Don't give it away." Without fussing over bridges and such, they treat their job like a calling--verses are packed with stories they need to tell and choruses ring out with why. The intensity wanes as they mull two suicides and several busted marriages, at least until a hard-rocking dirge about a feud brings the title into focus. But throughout they succeed in rendering Southern gothic as social realism. Somebody tell Charlie Watts jazz is for hobbyists. A-

The Dirty South [New West, 2004]
Class warfare meets gangsta-rock. The imagistic density of the songs about working for a living till you die--especially Jason Isbell's poetic "The Day John Henry Died" and Patterson Hood's narrative "Puttin' People on the Moon"--makes the vicious cycle seem more inescapable; their class consciousness justifies the badass nihilism of the anti-Buford Pusser triptych like ghetto sob stories about dope lords' pain do, only without the sentimentality. Then there are the two about successful musicians. Sam Phillips was OK for a rich man, but he could only take Carl Perkins so far. And Rick Danko ends up not much better off alive than Richard Manuel is dead. A-

A Blessing and a Curse [New West, 2006]
Includes title song directed at a trust fund baby I personally am sorry they ever met ("A World of Hurt," "Goodbye"). ***

Brighter Than Creation's Dark [New West, 2008]
OK, 19 songs, gotta be filler here somewhere, and there is, only it isn't melodic--with all music credited to the band, Shonna Tucker's muzzier lyrics and Mike Cooley's more elusive ones sound as well-turned as those of Patterson Hood, who's never written better. In Hood's songs, an opening act, an alcoholic, a crankhead, a heroic suicide, a heroic survivor and two different soldiers in Iraq fall between an opener where heaven is Saturday morning with your wife and kids and a closer that contemplates "the ironic nature of history." Cooley remains the lowlife specialist, most warmly with lost party girl Lisa and hometown gay guy Bob. Some complain "Bob" is the corniest country song they ever wrote. That's the point--one of several. A

The Fine Print (A Collection of Oddities and Rarities): 2003-2008 [New West, 2009]
"We don't tend to have many extra tracks lying around," aver Patterson Hood's typically readable notes, and if there are no printed lyrics, maybe that's because four of said tracks were covers: revamped Warren Zevon, obscure Tom T. Hall, meaningful Tom Petty, Shonna-fied "Like a Rolling Stone" (and I wouldn't say no to the "Moonlight Mile" I heard them do once). There's a dirty joke Mike Cooley turns into a children's song and a Christmas song Hood turns into a dirty joke, a Jason Isbell song that's three minutes too long and a Jason Isbell song that could be his own epitaph, a "Goode's Field Road" taken too fast and an "Uncle Frank" taken once more with feeling. And I haven't even mentioned "George Jones Talkin' Cell Phone Blues." Lead track. Should be. Not much extra here. A-

Live From Austin TX [New West, 2009]
A consistently listenable document of a documentably titanic live band. The only hedge is that it's front-loaded with most of the same songs that lead the band's greatest album, not that I ever mind hearing them again. Second half is a generous assortment that revs up the signature "Puttin' People on the Moon" with roughed-up Hood and Cooley solos, improves on the Cooley highlight from their weakest album, and updates Hood's deathless set piece "18 Wheels of Love" to bring the miracle into the present time--and also, you'll hope, the future. B+

The Big To-Do [ATO, 2010]
Patterson Hood learns the hard way that great songs are never an inexhaustible resource ("Birthday Boy," "Eyes Like Glue"). ***

Go-Go Boots [ATO, 2011]
A song band and proud, they turn down the boogie so we're sure to get the lyrics, which except for the two Eddie Hintons are laid out as well in a booklet so handsome the habitual downloader may want one for himself (or herself, I wish). Beyond the tribute to a glamorous aunt who knew how to show a five-year-old a good time, Patterson Hood's are most impressive when he channels two lost good old boys we might not like so much in person: well, a vet afraid to own that automatic weapon OK, but how about that cop thrown off the force? Mike Cooley owns the best tunes and the best lines: "like bringing flowers to your Mama and tracking dog shit all over the floor." Shonna Tucker shows Eddie Hinton a good time in the grave. A-

English Oceans [ATO, 2014]
Mike Cooley has always been a more facile singer and tunesmith than Patterson Hood. But facile implies that things come easy for him, and Cooley has never written enough to sustain that illusion until this album, where the leaders of the world's smartest boogie band split thirteen tracks smack down the middle. Two hymns to a caring fatalism bookend pained descriptions of simple men who believe clever bumper stickers and the piece of shit they vote for, of marriages too tragic for cheating songs because their ends are not in sight: the relaxed, acerbic Cooley lead "Shit Shots Count" ("The boss ain't as smart as you'd like him to be/But he ain't near as dumb as you think") and the pained, oncycling Hood elegy "Grand Canyon" ("I'm never one to wonder about the things beyond control"). But pervading it all is a musical ease that's on Cooley--a groove and feel that accomplishes a provisional and uncomplacent peace for a band eternally grateful that the highway still rolls. A

American Band [ATO, 2016]
In part because the Hood-to-Cooley ratio is back up and in part because they're less relaxed as the Obama Age ends, this superb song collection is raggedier than the last superb song collection. But in recompense it's more explicit and bereaved. Having resettled in Oregon just in time to detail an Umpqua massacre preceded by a victim's nice morning and idyllic weekend, Hood also spends 6:27 in Ferguson and its branches nationwide. Cooley opens with "Ramon Casiano," which minimal Googling makes clear is an assault on the NRA, and soon follows with "Surrender Under Protest," about the actual outcome of that war the starry-eyed say ended at Appomattox. Then there's the finale that begins "I was listening to the radio when they said that you were gone." Gotta be Merle, right? Uh-uh--Robin Williams. It's about mood swings and depression out of control, a somatic heritage Hood tells us he knows firsthand. A

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