Music Reviews
The Big To-Do

Drive-By Truckers The Big To-Do

(ATO) Rating - 9/10

How lucky is it that one of alt-country’s last true practitioners should also be one of its best? Drive-By Truckers – with its oft-celebrated Southern Gothic vignettes and backing instrumentation that blasts forth with the force of a sawed-off shotgun – creates a brand of rock n’ roll for folks who grew up listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers but now read Flannery O’Connor and Truman Capote. For those who missed the previous seven full-length albums, including the magnum opus Southern Rock Opera, this could be the record to finally draw you in. For longtime followers, however, The Big To-Do is a smaller slice of the same cornbread, which would be a problem if it weren’t so good.

The band still has the muscle to match its mileage. The disc opens with a single electric guitar calling out in major fourths as if ringing a doorbell. Then the door opens for the ensemble’s blunt, Neil Young-inspired three-guitar front line, giving Patterson Hood just enough room to spin his story of a child coping with his father’s recent death (Daddy Learned to Fly). Birthday Boy, one of only three songs penned by guitarist Mike Cooley, peels out with power chords propelling it along as the song’s author drawls a yarn about a small town stripper. The character makes barbed observations about her clients as she works her trade, and the jokes sounds natural in the way they use humor in self-defense: “You’ve got a girlfriend, don’t you boy? Nervous hands can’t lie. Married men don’t ask how much. Single ones ain’t buying.” Later, Cooley intones the saddest verse on the record with almost shrugging lyricism (“Between your mama’s drive and daddy’s belt, it don’t take smarts to learn to tune out what hurts more than helps.”). Then a wailing steel guitar takes over with a wind-in-the-hair solo, carrying the strain of the woman’s sorrow higher and higher.

That may sound overdramatic, but drama is something that DBT, like fellow rock classicists and wordier storytellers The Hold Steady, have honed for years. The narratives of epic benders (The Fourth Night of My Drinking), struggling sex workers, and murderous wives and abusive husbands (The Wig He Made Her Wear, which Hood delivers like he’s reading a court transcript) deal with similar themes of small-town violence, sexual misconduct, and working class anger in devastating ways. However, when the band filters all that good stuff through the black humor of Drag the Lake Charlie, the album becomes that much richer. It’s as if the Coen brothers commissioned the song. Tracks like This Fucking Job are typical recession-ready four-chord fist-pumpers (complete with a piano part that reminds me of another acerbic tune, the Beatles’ Getting Better), but these are the songs that make fans want to memorize every lyric.

After the Scene Dies tolls the bell for live music with appropriate melancholy (“When the front man turns to Jesus and the drummer moves away, I’ll still be doing what pleases me…”), but that doesn’t prevent some bitter joking from slipping in when Hood sings about the club becoming an Old Navy, the least glamorous of upper-middleclass clothing stores. How different would the line sound if he chose a J. Crew or Saks? The album begins to run on fumes with Santa Fe and The Flying Wallendas (a potentially tragic story lost in a boozy waltz that should have left the bar long before last call). But by the time the last note fades from closer Eyes Like Glue, the members of DBT have disproved their own prophecy. The scene, or at least this band, is still very much alive.