For true believers, Drive-By Truckers albums are like sprawling 10-course banquets that provide continued nourishment over the course of many listens. For the uninitiated, though, all the meaty character studies and bombastic arena-rock posturing can be a little rich and difficult to digest. Enter The Big To-Do, which is actually a relatively small to-do for a Drive-By Truckers release, lasting only 13 songs and just over 50 minutes. The songs themselves are also more approachable this time around; it takes Shonna Tucker’s spunky country-rock highlight “(It’s Gonna Be) I Told You So” barely two minutes to breeze in and out. Similarly, “This Fucking Job” is a thunderous bit of fist-pumping populism that’s a touch less specific (and therefore more universal) than DBT’s typical tales of lower-middle-class angst. Johnny Paycheck would be proud.
The Big To-Do seems like a conscious stab at reaching listeners outside the band’s cult—a less-straightforward follow-up culled from the same sessions is already planned for later this year, or early 2011—and it succeeds where 2006’s similarly concise A Blessing And A Curse whiffed, distilling the Truckers’ considerable strengths into a more accessible package without diluting them. (Thankfully, there’s still also room for a little weirdness courtesy of “The Wig He Made Her Wear,” a stiff shuffle with a meandering guitar riff that’s almost as unsettled as the song’s disgraced-preacher protagonist.) Drive-By Truckers have rarely been as likeable as they are on the surprisingly sensitive stripper portrait “Birthday Boy,” which marries great lines about how “pretty girls from smallest towns get remembered like storms and droughts” with pounding, uplifting rock ’n’ roll that recalls a grits-and-Skoal-fueled redux of Darkness On The Edge Of Town. While the portions are smaller on The Big To-Do, they’re just as satisfying.