Drive-By Truckers: Decoration Day

Drive-By Truckers: Decoration Day

Drive-By Truckers took a booming shot at immortality with 2001's double-sized concept album Southern Rock Opera, and though that record wowed many critics and fans with its complex examination of how to balance Dixie pride with liberal guilt, the music needed more of the hooky, chicken-fried rootsiness that the band was supposedly celebrating. The new Decoration Day isn't that riff-happy, either, but it's better than Southern Rock Opera in many respects. The smaller-scale stories of country folk seething over their lots in life are just as potent when divorced from an overarching theme, especially now that Drive-By Truckers has figured out how to adapt its musical limitations to the kind of songs it wants to perform. The slow, martial "The Deeper In" works loose death-country instrumentation around the sing-songy tale of an unloved girl who gets pregnant too young, while the scorching "Sink Hole" derives its catchiness from the repetition of lines in a defiant farmer's monologue, recited breathlessly between simple runs of distorted electric guitar. The band members have developed into excellent vampers, which shifts their songs' balance of power to the verbose, detail-laden lyrics, as in "My Sweet Annette," where the mention of a wedding made all the finer by "homemade ice cream" establishes a sweet plateau from the nasty events that follow. Not since Bruce Springsteen's Darkness On The Edge Of Town has a group of rock 'n' roll musicians been so in tune with the trappings and traps of small-town life. Too bad Drive-By Truckers has such a stubborn commitment to democracy, demonstrated its insistence upon having each member write and sing his own material. They're all about equal as songwriters, with guitarist Patterson Hood (who's responsible for about two-thirds of the material) getting the slight edge. When it comes to vocals, though, Hood blows his colleagues away with a rugged, elastic twang that expresses anger, sarcasm, pity, and glee with only the slightest modulation. Depriving fans of Hood's mighty voice for up to a third of each of its records is Drive-By Truckers' orneriest trait.

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