Drive-By Truckers

A Blessing and a Curse

(New West; 2006)

By Peter Hepburn | 20 April 2006

A Blessing and a Curse is by no means the best record that Drive-By Truckers have made (that’s Decoration Day). Nor is it the most ambitious (that’d be Southern Rock Opera). It is, however, exactly the album that DBT needed to make and also entirely honest to what the band has always stood for: drugs, disarray, and rock n’ roll.

Drive-By Truckers, upon the release of SRO, entered the popular consciousness (and here I don’t just mean my own consciousness as it’s almost undeniable to claim that it was SRO that catapulted them into wide view), as a band defined almost exclusively by one thing: southern mythology. The two records that they’ve put out since, Decoration Day and the lovely The Dirty South, have been steeped in the history, ethos, and culture of the South.

But for the fans that have come in here, focusing on this trilogy of Southern-fried Rock, it’s easy to ignore that this band started earlier on. Thematically, A Blessing and a Curse falls much closer to the band’s first two albums, which, while certainly informed by the South, didn’t, for instance, have three-song suites about the legend of Buford Pusser. New West’s reissues of Pizza Deliverance and the excellent Gangstabilly last year should have tipped us off: maybe after three records focusing on history, the boys were ready to go back and make a record about life as they’re living it now.

Taken for what it is, a straight up and down rock album, ABAAC is quite good. It’s not great — the latter half tends to sag a little — but generally it’s consistent, well written, and expertly played. As always the band heads in roaring, playing the three-guitar front for all it’s worth, but they also know when to rein it in, leading to the most compact and easily-digestible DBT album in years. Most importantly, all three singer-songwriters are in fine form.

Patterson Hood’s contributions, which as usual constitute the lion’s share, tend to be a bit stronger than on The Dirty South. “Feb. 14” is a typically great opener, getting at the ugly, painful underbelly of love as only DBT seem able. On the other hand, the gorgeous, relaxed “Goodbye” and the anthemic “Wednesday” are some of Hood’s best songs to date. Still, the closing duo, both Hood songs, tend to come off as a bit heavy-handed and unnecessary given the generally bleak lyrical outlook of the album as a whole.

Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell take two songs each and all four end up being among the best on the album. Cooley’s “Gravity’s Gone” is a stinging indictment of the music industry, while “Space City” is sort of a heartfelt update of “Putting People on the Moon.” Isbell, the kid-genius of the group, seems to be in full on ‘70s anthem mode. I’ve already written about the Blue Oyster Cult antics of “Easy on Yourself" around here, so I’ll focus on “Daylight.” The song is just so triumphantly alive and proud of it that it’s hard to fault Isbell for not quite reaching those notes (and after all, isn’t he addressing that when he says that “no one can sing for me”). The subtlety of his allusions and the strength of his imagery are the things that make a whole cadre of us anxiously await the inevitable solo album. That Hood can match him with the punk genius of “Wednesday” shows that DBT are still as good as everyone’s always told you they were.

It seems that a lot of critics are surprised by how much we can hear the Rolling Stones and the Replacements come through on ABAAC. While it’s true that both are there, it’s pretty easy to argue that they were just as present on the last few records. “Marry Me” represents basically the best guitar riff Keith Richards never came up with, and you could hear elements of Sticky Fingers throughout both SRO and Decoration Day. As for the Replacements, let’s not forget that Betamax Guilotine, the fictional group at the core of SRO that was an amalgam of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Hood’s autobiography, ran away to the North when they were young to escape Southern culture and play punk rock. There’s always been a punk streak in DBT (again, check out those first two records); we’re just hearing it come through a bit more now.

As I said before, though, ABAAC isn’t a Great Record. It feels like DBT need a bit more time to fit into these songs and make them distinctively their own. Maybe if they’d written them out on the road, as with their previous albums, it would have that same relaxed feel of a well-oiled machine. It’s good that they’ve moved away from just being that band that writes great historical fiction: in the end historical fiction gets boring. Now they just need to work out this shift to standard songwriting again and flesh it out a bit more. For now, ABAAC is a hell of a start.