critic’s pick 328: drive-by truckers, ‘english oceans’

english oceans“Somebody’s gotta mop up the blood,” sings Mike Cooley at the onset of English Oceans, the newest batch of exquisitely literate meat-and-potatoes rockers from Drive-By Truckers. That such a remark is made with non-threatening candor over a Memphis flavored roadhouse groove that recalls the Rolling Stones in all their Exile of Main St. glory should come as no surprise. This is the sound of the Truckers coming to life again and saying “howdy” with an arsenal of vital rock ‘n’ roll misfit songs.

In fact, English Oceans isn’t high on the element of surprise at all. With the departure of bassist Shonna Tucker, the band relies squarely (and, for the first time, equally) on the narrative-heavy songwriting of Cooley and Patterson Hood. Early reviews claim the record to be a more solidly rocking affair, although its most potent tune is Hood’s album-closing Grand Canyon, a eulogy to longtime band ally Craig Lieske. The song indulges in wave after wave of power chord affirmation (“I lift my glass and smile”) before taking a dive into a pool of divine feedback until nothing is left but the scattered yet highly purposeful beat of Truckers drummer Brad Morgan.

Equally un-rockish is the Hood-penned piano lament When Walter Went Crazy, which is frightening not because the song’s namesake character torches his own home, but because family and neighbors look on (“like a crash in slo-mo”) as though the destruction was entirely expected.

Cooley and Hood manage to flee the Truckers’ much beloved “Dirty South” for a few tunes, too. Cooley’s Made Up English Oceans follows a pack of embittered, scripture-quoting politicos with a misty country shuffle that sounds like Marty Robbins laced with Hank III. Then Hood offers The Part of Him, a saga that outrageously rhymes “phoning in” with “Nixonian” as it outlines the blind ambitions of a pandering Southern candidate “indifferent to honesty.”

None of these songs go overboard on the rock ‘n’ roll, although the record’s inherent soulfulness plays itself out nicely on the Tom Petty-esque Primer Coat and the Creedence Clearwater Revival meets Wet Willie strut of Hearing Jimmy Loud (both Cooley tunes) as well as the Neil Young-style thud of Hood’s When He’s Gone.

The music is all electric and, yes, rock-worthy. But it’s also structured so that you don’t miss a word of the dark rural tales Cooley and Hood cook up. That’s the real beauty of English Oceans.

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