Drive-by Truckers and Jason Isbell

(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )

Gangstabilly (1998), 5.5/10
Pizza Deliverance (1999) , 5.5/10
The Southern Rock Opera (2001), 7/10
Decoration Day (2003), 6/10
The Dirty South (2004), 6.5/10
A Blessing and a Curse (2006), 5.5/10
The Dirt Underneath (2007), 5/10
Brighter Than Creation's Dark (2008), 6.5/10
Go Go Boots (2011), 5/10
English Oceans (2014), 6/10
American Band (2016), 6.5/10
The Unraveling (2020), 5/10
The New OK (2020), 4/10
Jason Isbell:
Sirens of the Ditch (2007), 6.5/10
Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit (2009), 6/10
Here We Rest (2011), 6/10
Southeastern (2013), 7/10
Something More Than Free (2015), 6/10
The Nashville Sound (2017), 6.5/10
Reunions (2020), 6/10

Drive-By Truckers were formed in Georgia in 1996 by guitarists Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. Their good-humored blend of roots-rock, ranging from cow-punk to southern boogie, from Tom Petty to the Rolling Stones, from the Band to Neil Young. They honed their rustic skills on Gangstabilly (1998), with the moving The Living Bubba and the energetic Steve McQueen, and on Pizza Deliverance (1999), with Margo & HaroldThe Company I Keep. Alabama Ass Whuppin' (2000) was a live album.

This first phase of their career peaked with the double-disc The Southern Rock Opera (Soul Dump, 2001 - Lost Highway, 2002), mostly recorded live in the studio, which is both a rock opera and an explicit tribute to the three-guitar sound of Lynyrd Skynyrd (Hood's Ronnie And Neil, Dead Drunk And Naked), with moments of sheer pathos (such as Cooley's power-ballad 72) and moments of sheer frenzy (such as the rock'n'roll of Cooley's Guitar Man Upstairs). Hood's The Southern Thing, although placed in the middle of disc one, is the album's manifesto. The second part of the disc has less to offer in both musical and lyrical terms, although Hood's bar-room blues Wallace and Malone's agonizing acoustic Moved pack as much passion as the band ever did. The music is a lot less engaging when the band focuses on the lyrics and neglects the power chords. Hood's vibrant Let There Be Rock and Rob Malone's soul-funk Cassie's Brother are the only winners in the second disc's first half. The opera then picks up steam with a triad of loud and fast numbers: the roaring boogie of Life In The Factory, the breakneck rock'n'roll of Shut Up And Get On The Plane (with anthemic refrain a` la Bruce Springsteen), and the no less rowdy and ebullient Greenville To Baton Rouge. Hood's harrowing (and almost cacophonous) eight-minute elegy Angels And Fuselage closes the album on a sour note.

Following Malone's departure, guitarist and songwriter Jason Isbell joined the band for Decoration Day (New West, 2003), a cycle of songs (dominated by Hood) about domestic and personal tragedies in a style far removed from the Lynyrd Skynyrd-esque orgy of the previous album. Thus the calvary begins with the plaintive The Deeper In (replete with weeping guitars) and proceeds with the frothing paranoia of Hell No, the rollicking country-rock of My Sweet Annette, the calm meditation of Heathens (with the best guitar interplay of the album), the agonizing blues-rock of the lengthy Your Daddy Hates Me, Isbell's elegiac Decoration Day (the tragic zenith of the album). The vibrancy of the "rock opera" surfaces again in the anthemic, punk-ish, galopping Sink Hole, in Cooley's ebullient Marry Me, in Cooley's Springsteen-esque heroic Do It Yourself, and in the rocking Careless (originally composed in 1996). All in all, that vibrancy is sorely missed.

The Dirty South (New West, 2004), their best-selling album, was another concept devoted to myths of the south. The album starts out on a vivid note with Cooley's martial, ominous and discordant Where the Devil Don't Stay and Isbell's solemn, noisy The Day John Henry Died, two of their most poignant epics. Hood captures the desperation of ordinary people in Puttin' People on the Moon and then the horrors of history (again from the viewpoint of ordinary people) in The Sands of Iwo Jima. His ability to combine music and lyrics into physical anguish has reached an almost demonic zenith. At this point there is virtually no style that the band does not master, from the vehement tirade The Buford Stick to the old-fashioned hillbilly music Daddy's Cup, from the Neil Young-ian distorted litany of Lookout Mountain to Isbell's tender organ-tinged Goddamn Lonely Love, without ever resorting to the Lynyrd Skynyrd-esque excesses of the "rock opera".

The poppier and slicker A Blessing and a Curse (New West, 2006) contained Cooley's Space City. These three albums boasted a songwriting team that had few equals at the time, slowly converging towards the baroque country-pop sound pioneered by Wilco.

Isbell then left the band and launched a solo career with Sirens of the Ditch (2007) in a passionate and populist roots-rock vein. The sound is not much different from the sound of the Drive-by Truckers (Try, Brand New Kind of Actress, and especially Shotgun Wedding) but it expands with the moving antiwar song Dress Blues, the bluesy Hurricanes and Hand Grenades and the solemn Warren Zevon-ian Chicago Promenade.

Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley continued without Isbell and with two new members, guitarist John Neff and keyboardist Spooner Oldham, on The Dirt Underneath (2007), a rather inferior collection.

The overlong Brighter Than Creation's Dark (New West, 2008) could have been a killer mini-album if only the good material had been released, such as Hood's mordant six-minute Neil Young-ian war requiem That Man I Shot, furious and martial The Righteous Path and especially country opener Two Daughters And A Beautiful Wife, Cooley's Rolling Stones-ian Three Dimes Down, stately country song Lisa's Birthday and especially his anthemic Self-Destructive Zones, as well as bassist Shonna Tucker's crystalline psalm The Purgatory Line. The lengthy, cinematic The Opening Act is a late-night shuffle that could have been livelier. However that's enough to make it one of their most evocative and profound collections.

Patterson Hood also released the solo albums Killers And Stars (New West, 2004), recorded in 2001, and Murdering Oscar (And Other Love Songs) (Ruth St, 2009), recorded in 2005, whose best song Pollyanna was even older.

Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit (Thirty Tigers, 2009), Isbell's second album, contains some of his most vigorous songs (However Long, Soldiers Get Strange, Seven-Mile Island) but doesn't match the debut's poignancy.

The Big To-Do (2010) contains the rowdy This Fucking Job and the heartbreaking Birthday Boy (besides Daddy Learned to Fly), and Go Go Boots (2011) the seven-minute Used to Be a Cop (besides Ray's Automatic Weapon, Pulaski Tennessee and The Fireplace Poker); elegant stories of ordinary people in ordinary towns. Meanwhile, the three-guitar attack had largely been abandoned.

Isbell's crew, instead, had a humbler goal in mind for Here We Rest (2011), another subdued collection by the standards of his old band, and dealing with more somber themes (more like the backporch reflection on tough times than the "drink till you drop" kind of fun). The stylistic middle ground of lazy brooding shuffles like Alabama Pines and Codeine is probably his artistic high ground, whereas Daisy Mae is too lame and Never Could Believe too tough for his kind of roots-rock.

Isbell's mostly acoustic solo album Southeastern (2013), coming after his redemption from alcoholism, is one of the peaks of his career. The quasi-yodeling singalong Cover me up is the natural manifesto of his passionate blue-collar rock, and the four-song stretch of Traveling Alone, Elephant (the second standout), Flying Over Water and Different Days has few equals in his era.

Isbell's solo album Something More Than Free (2015) matches much of that visceral atmosphere with better arranged songs such as Something More Than Free (with piano and fiddle) and 24 Frames, and descends into languid pathos with the six-minute emotional centerpiece Children of Children.

He resurrected the 400 Union moniker for the loud and raunchy The Nashville Sound (2017), whose novelty are the political songs that coexist with his confessional Anxiety and If We Were Vampires, but the standout is the unusually supercharged Springsteen-esque boogie of Cumberland Gap. And Reunions (2020) adds the anthemic Be Afraid and the fatalistic Overseas, which are two of his gems, and then the poignant seven-minute What've I Done to Help, the stately elegy Dreamsicle and the fragile ballad Only Children

Meanwhile, the Drive-By Truckers kept thriving at the intersection of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen on English Oceans (2014), with the rocking opener Shit Shots Count, the catchy Hearing Jimmy Loud, the elegiac First Air of Autumn and the funereal eight-minute closer Grand Canyon

American Band (2016) is de facto a protest album, their most sociopolitical commentary yet, via Ramon Casiano, Surrender Under Protest, What it Means, the visceral Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn (reminiscent of their Sink Hole), and especially Guns of Umpqua.

The Unraveling (2020) is uneven, with too many songs diminishing the value of Armageddon's Back in Town and 21st Century America.

The New OK (2020) is a collection of second-rate material.

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(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
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