Reviewed by: Jane Roser
Released today by ATO Records, the heAthens’ kings of Southern rock are back with their 12th album and boy does it pack a wallop. The old saying goes ‘never follow good whiskey with water, unless you’re out of good whiskey’ and this ain’t no water-downed version of the Truckers we know and love. English Oceans may sound like a pretty title, but the Drive-By Truckers are back to creating down and dirty rock and roll with their best album since 2003’s Decoration Day and 2004’s The Dirty South (take your pick).
Founding members Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley penned all 13 songs and recorded 12 of them within 13 days of studio sessions with longtime producer David Barbe, marking the first time in four years DBT has been in the studio. Brilliant and poetic storytellers, Hood and Cooley balance each other out in their songwriting and capture the essence of what makes a song remarkable- their ability to tap into the listener’s psyche and make you feel pain, joy, confusion, excitement and nostalgia all at once. Drummer Brad Morgan, keyboardist/guitarist Jay Gonzalez and new bassist Matt Patton, round out the group and they are as tight as ever.
“Shit Shots Count” is the first track and along with “When Walter Went Crazy”, are the best song titles I’ve seen this year. It’s a fun, raucous tune and Cooley delivers with lyrics such as: “put your cigarette out and get your hat back on. Don’t mess up which is which. They don’t pay you enough to worry, well they don’t pay me enough to bitch.” Classic DBT.
“Pauline Hawkins” was an early download offered by the Truckers and is based upon a character in writer/musician Willy Vlautin’s novel The Free. Hood finished the book on a Saturday, wrote the song on Sunday, cut it on Thursday and mastered it on Monday. The book’s character of Pauline Hawkins has had a hard knock life and as a result, she’s shut off her emotions: “don’t call me your baby, I won’t answer. Love is like a cancer; and I am immune.” The song ends with a lovely keyboard melody and an almost eerie, high-pitch guitar reverb. Just when you think the song is over, you’re pleasantly hit in the gut by a kick-ass drum and electric guitar riff.
“Hearing Jimmy Loud” is one of my favorite songs on the album and recounts the joys and frustrations of raising children: “them kids ain’t never listening, ain’t no use in tryin’ now. All we’re doing’s gettin’ older and our welcome and our warning’s wearin’ out.” And “everybody loves a baby, everybody loves a child. Nobody wants to see them damaged nobody wants ’em running wild.”
“When Walter Went Crazy” is Hood’s version of the modern murder ballad that the Truckers have mastered so well. Walter just snaps one day, takes a can of gasoline and sets his house on fire. With his wife still inside. “His friends could see it coming, like yellow piss on the snow, like a house fire in the distance, like a car crash in slow-mo.”
The final track, “Grand Canyon”, is an emotionally charged elegy dedicated to their longtime friend, fan favorite, DBT merchandise guy and former manager of Athens’ 40 Watt Club, Craig Lieske. Lieske tragically passed away last year following the first night of the band’s three-night homecoming show in Athens, Georgia. It is a beautiful, heartfelt tribute and is a lovely bookend to a perfect album.
What DBT fans appreciate most about their music can be found in abundance on English Oceans. Rawness, honesty, passion, shocking thrills, and the get-up-off-your-ass music that sets your heart aflame and your pants on fire. Flannery O’ Connor once said that “the writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location.” And the Drive-By Truckers have done just that.