Drive-By Truckers – The Big To-Do

The Big To-Do (2010)

B+

1. Daddy Learned To Fly 2. The Fourth Night Of My Drinking 3. Birthday Boy 4. Drag The Lake Charlie 5. The Wig He Made Her Wear 6. You Got Another 7. This Fuckin’ Job 8. Get Downtown 9. After The Scene Dies 10. (It’s Gonna Be) I Told You So 11. Santa Fe 12. The Flying Wallendas 13. Eyes Like Glue

 

Uh oh. Is it really time for DBT to make their “return to rock” record already? Jesus, man, it’s only been one album since the last time they made an ostensible “rock record.” But fans get antsy, and the minute it starts to seem like their favorite band might be starting to grow up and maybe slow down a little bit, the Army of “Meh” springs into action and immediately begins emitting cries of “over the hill!” and clamoring for more LOUD ASS GUITARS.

Not that DBT, or any band, ever endeavors to cater to message board numbskulls who presume to have license to dictate what their favorite artists should or should not sound like. For the most part, I think albums like The Big To-Do arise from bands wanting to have a new batch of fun, rocking songs to play on tour. But those albums do come off as sort of reactionary, especially when the previous record, mellow or not, was actually a career highlight like Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. I’m talking about albums like Together, or It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll, or even—gulp—Monster (*shudders*). The R.E.M. comparison is actually fairly apt. Both bands made quieter, emotional, acoustic-focused albums that turned out to be post-prime, mid-career peaks in terms of both quality and popularity; for R.E.M., it was Automatic For The People, and for DBT, it was Brighter (which, while achieving but a pitiful fraction of Automatic’s commercial success, actually debuted in the Billboard top 40, making it their highest-charting album to that point). Nonetheless, both bands decided to follow those records up with louder, more frivolous about-faces. Why? Because dumbass on a fan forum named FrumpyPoots89 said, “there new ablum is gay!!1! i remembrer when they used to rock. never 4get BENGHATZZZI!!” (Well, I guess that’s not why R.E.M. did it, it having been the early 90s and all. How did people publish their misinformed snarky comments before the internet, anyway? Via fax?).

Now, The Big To-Do is nowhere near as misguided and shitty as Monster by any stretch of the imagination. It’s got its own distinct flavor in the DBT catalog, and plenty of great songs with a couple of classics thrown in. And honestly, if the last two songs weren’t such a letdown, it would make an even better impression than it already does (Patterson’s awkward, lumbering circus ballad “The Flying Wallendas” and Cooley’s shockingly mawkish “Eyes Like Glue”—featuring baffling lines like “Someday you’ll be a man/You’ll have a big old brain”… huh?—sure do take the air out of the balloon real quick). Nonetheless, I can’t help feeling a little let down by this record in light of its predecessor. Maybe part of that has to with the fact that it’s a little lyrically and thematically superficial compared to the emotional depths they plumbed on Brighter – when the album came out, Patterson likened it to a flash-bang summer action movie, as opposed to, I guess, Brighter’s sprawling arthouse drama. That assessment makes some sense, and for a band as erudite as DBT, that might be construed as them dumbing it down. But shit, I would rather watch 12 Thor sequels than have to sit through Capote and resist the urge to literally bore my own eyes out with a nail file out of sheer boredom. Besides, it’s not like DBT are nothing but stone-faced proclamators of historical Southern fables – this is the same band who wrote “The President’s Penis Is Missing,” after all.

Nah, if I were to express some reservations about The Big To-Do, they wouldn’t have much to do with the songs, which are still great (again, other than the last two). As usual, the highlight is a Cooley song – this time, it’s “Birthday Boy,” which is sung from the point of view of a seen-it-all stripper-cum-hooker. It’s a near-perfect character sketch, and keeping with the Big To-Do=action flick idea, it reminds me of that one scene with Mickey Rourke in The Expendables (which, yes, I actually saw once, for some reason) – some hard-earned wisdom from an unexpected source that elevates the entire album/movie. Patterson’s best song here is “Santa Fe,” a sweet rumination on being far away from the one you love. Personal experience means songs about this topic always get to me, and suffice it to say “Revel in the everyday” might be the best advice I’ve ever heard for getting through a long-distance relationship. And Shonna once again holds her own with the weighty piano ballad “You Got Another” and the kickass, rocked-up 60s girl-group ballbuster “I Told You So.”

That being the case, the biggest difference between The Big To-Do and, say The Dirty South is that the band who made the former isn’t nearly as well-suited to the style and aesthetic they were going for than the band who made the latter. Not that The Big-To Do is an attempt to revive the sound of the Isbell-era band – while it’s ostensibly in the same general 70s classic rock paradigm, there’s more of a power pop bent to this one with its mellotron and melodic backing vocal refrains and what not. More Big Star than Skynyrd, in other words. Well, whatever the hell it sounds like, though, it’s definitely a clean break from the mold DBT established with Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, which was a pretty much perfect mold for this particular configuration of the band. The sweet, sweet pedal steel of John Neff, the gentle harmonies of Shonna Tucker, and the increasingly calmed-down songwriting of Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, two guys in their mid-40s. That band just isn’t as well equipped to ROCK THE FUCK OUT as the Isbell-era band.

A lot of that has to do with the fact that John Neff, while a master of the pedal steel, is a technically stilled but pretty non-emotive and vanilla lead guitarist. That issue is magnified on The Big To-Do, where he only plays pedal steel on four songs and straps on a Les Paul for the rest. His uninspired soloing fails to elevate Cooley’s recession boogie “Get Downtown,” and threatens to almost ruin the otherwise excellent “Drag The Lake Charlie.” Why the hell did they mix that whiny-sounding noodling so far out in front of Patterson’s badass rhythm riff? Dumb. On the other hand, feel free to disregard everything I wrote up to this point in the paragraph because it turns out Neff is also an incredible slide guitar player. His soaring lines on “The Fourth Night Of My Drinking” and especially “Birthday Boy” are just… man, they’re something. Seriously, 3:00-3:11 of “Birthday Boy” is just otherworldly. Still, I think the distinction of most interesting guitar line on the album goes to Cooley, who plays this completely weird-ass, slow-mo funk thing on Patterson’s tawdry small town murder tale “The Wig He Made Her Wear” that just sounds so, well, wrong, and yet somehow so right. It’s like, why play something like that when you could just noodle around the edges, like Neff is doing? Well, cuz that would be safe and boring. And Cooley don’t play dat.

To sum up, I think The Big To-Do is a fun album. I really do. It would be a lot more fun if they had dropped the last two songs and substituted the roaring “Girls Who Smoke,” which for some unexplainable reason was relegated to iTunes bonus track status. But hey, what can you do. Just cause there might not be as much thematic or emotional depth here compared to past efforts doesn’t make it automatically inferior. Like, “Daddy Learned To Fly” is topically similar to “Two Daughters And A Beautiful Wife” on Brighter in that it’s about a young father dying – it even reuses the “everybody cried” line. But this time, the story is told from the wide-eyed perspective of a young child the dad left behind, which makes it feel almost like an “inspirational” PG Disney version of the story than “Two Daughters,” which felt painfully real. Will it keep you up at night, grappling with its emotional impact like “Two Daughters” might? Probably not. But it’s got crunching guitars, a Cooley solo, and a catchy “oooooooo” vocal thing, so it’ll probably get stuck in your head faster. Nuthin’ wrong with that.



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