Because January is a slow new-release month (in terms of albums I care about, anyway), one of my favorite things to do each time it comes around is find albums I completely missed from the previous year. Because Bollocks! is an insanely small operation, it is literally impossible for me to review every album that comes out each year. Not that I would want to. A lot of albums are utter shit and that’s a sea through which I’m happy not to wade, thank you very much. But the downside is that I do miss albums that are actually really good. For 2010, one of those albums is The Big To-Do by the Drive-By Truckers (a band that, according to reliable sources, is given a government subsidy every time they use a hyphen). Fortunately, my friend Zac (he gets mentioned a lot on Bollocks! because when it comes to bullshitting about music, he is one of my closest confederates, one of the few people who can match my elitism and general level of snark. That he turned me on to both the new Kanye West record and the Drive-By Truckers should tell you all you need to know about the scope of the man’s musical taste) sent me an email about the Drive-By Truckers and mentioned that The Big To-Do would be a fine place to start exploring their music.
If I was burned out on doing this blog (which I’m not – I’m actually more excited about doing this than I’ve ever been before) and I didn’t like The Big To-Do, I could consign Bollocks! to the dustbin of internet history this very day by typing, “More like the Big To-Don’t”, publishing it as a farewell post, and then throwing my computer into my apartment complex’s swimming pool. But fortunately for all of us, neither of those two criteria will be met here today. I actually like The Big To-Do quite a bit and I’ve learned my lesson from missing this band in 2010. When Go-Go Boots (another hyphen! It’s like hyphens are an endangered species and the Drive-By Truckers are trying to coax them into mating) drops next month (February 15th), I’ll be properly prepared to receive it.
In case their name didn’t clue you in, the Drive-By Truckers are a Southern rock band. They’re from Athens, Georgia, although some of their members hail from Alabama. How Southern rock are they, you ask? They did a fucking rock opera inspired by Lynyrd Skynyrd (called, naturally, Southern Rock Opera. I haven’t heard it, but I’m certainly intrigued). “Southern rock” is a phrase that might give some readers pause; it gets a bad rap from some people, largely because of regional prejudice and small-ly because of some innate fear of bands with three guitars in them. But I actually like some Skynyrd tunes and I will point out that there is plenty of wonderful Southern rock (think early My Morning Jacket and the first two Whigs records). For those of you taking notes, a simple geography lesson: good Southern rock comes from the South (Lucero, for instance, is from Tennessee) and bad Southern Rock comes from Detroit (Ted Nugent and Kid Rock, two of music’s biggest assholes).
The Drive-By Truckers not only have three guitars in the band, they have three vocalists – Patterson Hood (who sounds like the long lost son of Neil Young and Wayne Coyne), Mike Cooley, and bassist Shonna Tucker. Each brings their own unique flavor of awesome to their lead vocal turns: Cooley’s grim baritone is perfect for “Birthday Boy,” a song wherein a hooker dispenses worldly wisdom to the titular birthday boy, Tucker is astounding on “You Got Another” (perhaps The Big To-Do‘s most beautiful song), and Hood captures childhood innocence (“Daddy Learned to Fly”) and working class blues (“This Fucking Job”) with equal grace. But getting back to those guitars – I’ve always thought that having three guitars in a band was a bit excessive (and don’t even get me started on double-necked guitars – and yes, I know Tad Kubler has one), but one of the things the Drive-By Truckers do (Hood and Cooley are joined by John Neff, who plays pedal steel), rather than trade off indulgent solos, is create textures with their guitars. There’s a lot of subtlety in the way the band mixes their country and rock influences and, while the songs have a nice, rough edge to them (especially the ones Hood sings), they’re loose without sounding lazy and that gives me a strong sense that the Drive-By Truckers are pretty disciplined musicians.
Thematically, the album tends to tell stories of small town mishaps, usually involving some kind of fuck-up who is sometimes lovable (Lester in “Drag the Lake Charlie”) and sometimes not (the preacher in “The Wig He Made Her Wear”). This is another way to distinguish good Southern rock from Kid Southern Rock – a lot of the songs on The Big To-Do are about accepting a reality where plenty of bad things happen but they don’t kill you. This kind of complexity has no place in Kid Rock’s oeuvre (which contains such Flannery O’Connor-esque ditties as “So Hott”, “Bawitdaba,” and “Cowboy.” If I hated you, dear readers, I could link to any or all of those videos. But I’m feeling pretty charitable this morning so I’ll let you seek out those audio/visual punishments on your own), mostly because Kid Rock is more concerned with, well, Kid Rock.
Like all good Southern rock records, The Big To-Do transcends the genre label to some extent (did Lynyrd Skynrd, the arguable godfathers of Southern rock do this? You might think they didn’t, but there were elements of funk and blues in several of their songs. Do not take this as an endorsement of “Free Bird,” however. I really don’t like that song and it only proves that Skynyrd was both the best and the worst that Southern rock had to offer. If you’re looking for a slow-burning Southern anthem from Lynyrd Skynyrd, allow me to suggest the vastly superior “Simple Man”). There are elements of pure country on the album and a few moments where the guitars head in a direction that is decidedly more Sonic Youth than Skynyrd. Hell, several of Patterson Hood’s songs (especially “Drag the Lake Charlie” and “Daddy Learned to Fly”) wouldn’t be entirely out of place on the Flaming Lips’ Transmissions from the Satellite Heart album. More importantly than all that, though, the Drive-By Truckers have compiled thirteen tracks with a lot of personality, raucous energy, and real musical beauty.