Drive By Truckers: The Big To-Do

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Artist: Drive By Truckers

Title: The Big To-Do
Release date: March 16
Label: ATO

I've been looking forward to hearing the new Drive By Truckers' record for one reason: They represent the last time (before this year, of course) I dove head first into the work of a band I was totally unfamiliar with based solely on someone's recommendation.

I used to do that kind of thing all the time -- back before the aesthetic atrophy set in -- but by the time DBT's Decoration Day had come out in 2003, I just wasn't taking too many chances on bands I hadn't heard of. Maybe you can relate?

It was actually my would-be wife who'd read about Drive By Truckers in an issue of MOJO and suggested we buy it. We loved that record (and for my money, it's still DBT's best record), listening to it over and over as we painted the rooms in our house. We loved that the band boasted not one, not two, but three consistently solid songwriters, each with unique voices and songwriting styles. We loved that the writers were storytellers first and foremost, weaving vivid and literate and sometimes darkly funny tales of life in the South. We liked that it was kind of country, but not the lowest common denominator cheese being churned out by the pros in Nashville.

And, of course, we loved that DBT could rock out with the best of 'em. Then they could turn on a dime and play a ballad with equal aplomb. Years later, Decoration Day (and its very nearly as good follow-up, The Dirty South) was still in heavy rotation around our home. Since then, it's been an on-and-off relationship with DBT. 

The love affair came crashing down when we road-tripped to Tucson to see them play the Rialto a couple of years ago. It was a big disappointment. The concert was more like a rehearsal than a show. Patterson Hood, the band's de facto frontman, even used a music stand to help him get through several of the songs. They were clearly woodshedding what would become their most recent record, Brighter Than Creation's Dark. I eventually got a copy of that record, but didn't even get all the way through it. I was turned off by what seemed like the band's increasing appetite for self-indulgence.

The band''s new one, The Big To-Do, promised to leaner and meaner on its new label, Dave Matthews' ATO. For the most part, it is. A seemingly impossible feat for DBT, they kept this record under an hour long. Nice job, guys. My immediate reaction to hearing the first couple of songs was: These guys want to be the next Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. They've simplified the songs, tightened up the arrangements, and slicked up the production. There's nothing here resembling a Petty-esque hit single, but the first song, "Daddy Learned to Fly," it pretty close. 

The riff is pure gold and the lyrics are vintage Hood, a slice-of-life vignette about a little kid who's dad is dead. The next song, "The Fourth Night of My Drinking," is more DBT at its best. The other songwriting star of DBT, Mike Cooley (underused on this record), keeps things rolling with "Birthday Boy." After that, it's mostly downhill. With the exception of two songs sung by bass player Shonna Tucker, the record totally flattens out. Like I said, Cooley sings on just couple of songs, and Hood's other tracks, he comes off as self-important ("After the Scene Dies") or, worse, faking it ("This Fucking Job"). But on his two trademark song-stories, "The Wig He Made Her Wear" and the laughably awful "The Flying Wallendas," the singer sounds no longer convinced of the formula that got him this far.

Each release since The Dirty South has had a couple of true gems, but, ultimately, more misses than hits. After listening to The Big To-Do a few times, I get the sense DBT really does want to be real rock stars. Of course, they'll have write a real hit first.

What do you longtime DBT fans think about The Big To-Do? Drop a comment in the space below. I'd love to hear your opinions.

Best song: "Daddy Learned to Fly"
Rotation: Medium
Deja Vu: A band that's got everything but the secret ingredient it takes to become a star.
I'd rather listen to: Decoration Day and The Dirty South (which I will undoubtedly do in 2011)
Grade: B-

Nothing Not New" is a yearlong project in which New Times editorial operations manager Jay Bennett, a 40-year-old music fan and musician, will listen only to music released in 2010. Each Monday through Friday, he will listen to one new record (no best ofs, reissues, or concert recordings) and write about it. Why? Because in the words of his editor, Martin Cizmar, he suffers from "aesthetic atrophy," a wasting away of one's ability to embrace new and different music as one ages. Read more about this all-too-common ailment here.

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