Drive-By Truckers / The Hold Steady

The Big To-Do / Heaven is Whenever

(ATO / Vagrant; 2010)

By David M. Goldstein | 28 May 2010

Oh to have been a fly on the wall backstage on the “Rock and Roll Means Well” tour, a back-slapping, egalitarian good time co-headlined by the Hold Steady and Drive-By Truckers. The bands swapped top billing on a nightly basis, and it was probably the best rock show yours truly saw that year, made to coincide with the 2008 election. The pairing was obvious on the level of Oreos and milk. Both bands represent the gold-standard in unpretentious, distinctly American guitar rock with a welcome emphasis on the lyric sheet; Craig Finn and Patterson Hood are loquacious storytellers with a seemingly bottomless bag of slice-of-life vignettes. And while the Athens, GA-based Truckers are twangier than their Brooklyn, NY (by way of Minnesota) counterparts, they’re essentially the same band.

The comparisons run deep. Both Finn and Hood (along with respective consiglieres, Tad Kubler and Mike Cooley) toiled in less successful acts before hitting their stride, and are therefore on the older end of the indie spectrum, rock lifers weaned on ’70s AOR and ’80s hardcore. And their values are in keeping with their forebearers in that they don’t take forever between records, and tour the crap out of them when they’re finished. Rest assured these bands have seen the inside of the tour van far more than the walls of their proper homes, and both are now at the point where they can sell out mid-sized venues in major cities with minimal effort.

Thus, they’ve earned the right to release records like Heaven is Whenever and The Big To-Do, franchise protectors that break no new musical ground for their creators, but are nevertheless highly satisfying. With bands as consistently workmanlike as the ones detailed here, innovation is overrated. Either a Drive-By Truckers or Hold Steady song is instantly recognizable as such within thirty seconds, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Patterson Hood once wrote of his undying love for AC/DC on “Let There Be Rock,” from 2001’s Southern Rock Opera: “Ever hear anyone complain about ‘more of the same’ from AC fucking DC?”

As such, it’s no surprise that the majority of the songs on The Big To-Do are still built upon the Truckers’ vicious three-guitar attack reminiscent of Ragged Glory (1989)-era Neil Young. It’s also crunchier than their last couple of albums, with an almost complete absence of acoustic guitars and a fuzz-heavy mix that pushes their pedal steel and pump organ flourishes to the back. What is a bit different this time out is that Patterson Hood has miraculously regained his love of gallows humor that somehow went missing after Rock Opera; “The Fourth Night of My Drinking” and “Drag the Lake Charlie” consist of his funniest songs since. The latter is particularly sharp, a day in the life of a crime-scene cleaner that the Coen Brothers would dig (“Our best case scenario is Lester turns up dead / I’m almost out of valium, courage, and self-respect”). Hood’s contributions dominate To-Do: of the thirteen songs, bassist Shonna Tucker gets two, and, even after his jaw dropping win streak on 2008’s excellent Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, Mike Cooley is only allotted three. But he still comes off as the crafty Southern gentleman with all of the best one-liners, especially on “Birthday Boy,” a sympathetic take on the plight of an aging exotic dancer (i.e. “Which one’s the Birthday Boy? / I ain’t got all night / What d’ya mother name ya / You can call me what you like”).

Like Cooley and Hood, the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn continues to focus on what he knows, namely rosy nostalgia for his youth. This can take the form of ’80s Minnesota hardcore shows (“Barely Breathing”), Saturday night ragers (“Our Whole Lives”), or, in “We Can Get Together,” the simple pleasures of listening to records with your sweetheart set to the chord progression from PJ Harvey’s “You Said Something.” The latter song feels like a four minute response to the whole of music writer (and Hold Steady superfan) Rob Sheffield’s recent memoir, Love is a Mixtape: a love letter to vinyl in the guise of a wedding ballad laced with pop-culture references that only indie-nerds would be expected to get. It’s corny as hell, and yet so plays to the sentiments of their audience that it somehow ends up being one of the best songs they’ve written.

At least as concerns the studio, Franz Nicolay’s mustachioed presence isn’t terribly missed. The Hold Steady still sound like The World’s Greatest Bar Band^TM^, and Heaven sports pleasantly smoothed out production that lends the album a circa 1978 rock radio feel. The aura of Eddie Money looms strangely large; “Hurricane J” could have B-sided “Two Tickets to Paradise.” None of the songs quite scale the heights of a “Stuck Between Stations” or “Your Little Hoodrat Friend,” but it’s to the band’s credit that Heaven goes down considerably easier than Stay Positive (2008), fortunately bereft of the obvious clunkers that rendered that album’s Side B such a slog.

Listening to these two bands calls to mind the Dennis Leary rant where he laments the difficulty in modern America of finding “coffee flavored coffee” and “beer flavored beer”; choice and change is a good thing, but not to the extent that it fucks with your ability to get the classics. There’s something a little heroic in the Drive-By Truckers’ and Hold Steady’s desire to play to their strengths and hammer out a distinctive rock sound that requires minimal altering to keep fresh. There’s no shame in referring to The Big To-Do and Heaven is Whenever as formulaic records; the formula is theirs.