Drive-By Truckers, The Big To-Do
There are so many bands out there, you miss things even if you're a person who listens to a fair amount of music. I've been dimly aware of Drive-By Truckers for more than a decade. Making their belated close acquaintance now, through their tenth disc, I'm left with mixed feelings.
The first two songs really kick, especially "Daddy Learned to Fly." Then there's a batch of underwritten tracks, including a couple by band members other than primary singer/songwriter Patterson Hood. There is something romantically captivating about bassist Shonna Tucker's unadorned voice, and something cosmic about the band's swirling arrangement of her slip of a song, "You Got Another."
But too many of the songs blandly charge by without dynamics and with minimalist Jane's Addiction style melodies over unemotional chord progressions, a combination that works only intermittently. "Get Downtown," for example, tries hard for a fuzzy, good-old-rock-and-roll style, but there's little in Mike Cooper's voice to get your soul dancing.
As for Hood, his reliance on repetitive melody lines over angular chord changes results in flattened-sounding dissonances which at their best grow hypnotic. In the subtle "After the Scene Dies," the monotone notes evoke the barrenness of the dead cultural scene depicted in the lyrics, where "the club becomes an Old Navy." In other cases, like "Drag the Lake Charlie," the effect is merely grating.
Tucker's "(It's Gonna Be) I Told You So" effectively mixes a 60's-girl-group structure with pealing guitars and throbbing organ, while the keening, chunky-beated "Santa Fe" suggests the influence of Neil Young, whom the Truckers have backed up. But the painfully plodding "The Flying Wallendas" memorializes the famed acrobats into the ground.
There's a cool chaos to the soundscapes Hood and Co. splash all over this album like Jackson Pollocks with guitars. I'd dig it a lot more if more of the songs cohered into the emotionally affecting images suggested by the best few.
I found more satisfying the exuberant shout-pop of the young band Empires, which harks back to the soul-on-sleeve pyrotechnics and coruscating melodic lines of Pearl Jam. Their new five-song EP crashes in with the one-two punch of the arena-style "Damn Things Over" and the frenetic title track. It's centered by the shimmering power ballad "Strangers," then moves on to the insistent wall of sound of the somewhat unfocused "Intruder," which adds clarion-strong ooh's to a heavy alt-rock bed of guitars and then does an old-fashioned fadeout. The mid-tempo closer, "I Know You Know," plods despite its sonic density; it's the only track that doesn't have something about it that works well for me; instead of "let's craft a song" it feels more like "let's bang out 'our sound' for three minutes and 40 seconds. But overall, I found this quite an enjoyable mini-release.