I’m assuming that, if you read Bollocks!, you’re an adult. If you’re a kid and you read Bollocks!, your parents are doing a crap-lousy job of supervising you and I’ll try to feign surprise when you make the local news for taking a gun to school. So assuming you’re an adult, I’d also like to assume you know that truly great bands are never – never – flawless. Yes, even the Beatles (come on. Do you really listen to Yellow Submarine from start to finish? When you’re not high?). Even my beloved Clash, who executed London Calling with such élan, made Sandanista. Sandanista has its moments (“Sounds of Sinners” is one of the best Clash songs nobody but me talks about), but it’s also full of worthless crap. As an adult, I can admit this and my love of the Clash will not be diminished one bit. I think that’s the difference between being a discerning listener and a being a fanboy; the discerning listener can face the truth about their favorite bands and fanboys will call you a “fucktard” for pointing out that Led Zeppelin stole most of their music. Fanboys care more about their dogmatic loyalty to a band (or a video game or movie or some other cultural item) than they do about actual quality music (or quality game design, screenwriting, or you get the idea) and they are outraged that you might not. Ergo, a fanboy will spend a fair amount of time thinking of just the right ad hominem attack to deploy against a lowly music blogger while the discerning listener will spend the same amount of time finding just the right record to put on while they’re having sex with a beautiful person.
I bring up all this talk about great bands and imperfection because I like the Drive-By Truckers (motto: “Keeping Hyphens Employed Since 1996”) and I suspect that they are a great band. Their new album, Go-Go Boots, certainly has its imperfections, but it’s also got plenty of great music – enough (by far) to compensate for its flaws.
Coming so soon after the release of The Big To-Do (which dropped in March of last year), it makes a certain kind of sense for Go-Go Boots to feel like a sequel at times, for better or worse. Much has already been made of how closely “Go-Go Boots” and “The Fireplace Poker” resemble The Big To-Do‘s “The Wig He Made Her Wear.” As much as I’m generally in favor of songs about crooked clergymen, I think three songs about kinky/sadistic preachers is a bit much in the span of two albums.
The Drive-By Truckers’ great strength, though, lies in the dynamics they achieve by having three uniquely talented singers. Patterson Hood meanders the most (he sings on all three of the aforementioned preacher tunes), but when he reigns himself in a bit, he gives you charming pop (album opener “I Do Believe” and the Eddie Hinton cover “Everybody Needs Love”) and compelling story songs (“Used to Be a Cop” and “Ray’s Automatic Weapon”) that show why the Drive-By Truckers were such a good fit to tour with the Hold Steady. Mike Cooley is the pure-country stylist on Go-Go Boots (he rocked a little more on The Big To-Do; “Birthday Boy” was a highlight of that record), sometimes crying (“The Weakest Man”) and sometimes snickering (“Cartoon Gold” is one of the best tracks on the album). And then there’s Shonna Tucker, who just fucking soars (if you heard “You Got Another” from The Big To-Do, you know what I’m talking about). “Dancing Ricky” is a humorous song, but Tucker conveys a good-natured empathy for the song’s subject, a diabetic with a shirt that’s “too damn small” for his body. It’s this reporter’s opinion (note: I am not a reporter) that it is impossible for the Drive-By Truckers to overuse Shonna Tucker.
There are a few longer songs on Go-Go Boots, two of which are longer than seven minutes. You might not notice it on “Used to Be a Cop” because Hood tells that story so well. But my guess is that you’ll notice it on “The Fireplace Poker.” As I said, Patterson Hood wanders a bit much for his own good on some songs, but a dude who can close an album with something as simply sweet as “Mercy Buckets” (“I’ll help you hide the bodies” is sweet, right?) is gonna get a lot of goodwill from Yours Truly. Go-Go Boots feels like the Drive-By Truckers are stretching out a bit and indulging in some jammier tunes; it might try your patience a bit in places, but I think the band is ultimately better for it. One of the big problems with country rock (or southern rock, if you prefer) is that it can begin to feel like a trap, especially if you’re treading the well-worn, three-guitars-in-the-band path that Lynyrd Skynyrd blazed decades ago. My Morning Jacket took two albums to transcend the southern rock label, but those two albums are their two best (though At Dawn is right up there). I’m not sure the Drive-By Truckers want to shed their southern roots as entirely as My Morning Jacket did, but one of the things I like about them is their audible desire to keep things fresh. That may require some experimentation and some experiments inevitably fail (let’s not have, for instance, any more songs like “The Thanksgiving Filter”. The idea is cute, but the song is just a little too obvious for a band this clever). Go-Go Boots is softer and slower than its predecessor and if their next album balances the strengths of both The Big To-Do and Go-Go Boots, it will be a tremendous outing indeed.
As it is, Go-Go Boots is pretty good, warts and all. The other hallmark of great (but flawed) bands is that their albums compel you to keep listening, even after you think you’ve got them pretty well pegged. The National’s Boxer took a long time to grow on me, but I often found myself reaching for it and not really knowing why (it ended up being one of my favorite albums of 2007). I own two Drive-By Truckers albums now and I feel that way about both of them.