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Day of Reckoning

 

Drive-By Truckers: Decoration Day

New West Records, 2003

Rating: 4.3

 

 

Posted: July 3, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Georgia's Drive-By Truckers may never live to see the day when a review of one of their albums doesn't make some mention of their career watershed, 2001's Southern Rock Opera. So let's get that out of the way: It's a good record, an ambitious concept record sort of about Lynyrd Skynyrd, and definitely concerned with growing up in the American South, and you can read all about it here. But we're here to talk about Decoration Day, for which the Truckers' previous label, Lost Highway, reportedly had little enthusiasm. (Memo to Lost Highway suits: Did you see I Am Trying to Break Your Heart? About a little band called Wilco? Ring any bells? Although to be fair, we must concede that the monthly budget for feeding Ryan Adams' insatiable ego must be immense.)

Whatever. The temptation to measure Decoration Day against its ambitious predecessor will prove too irresistible for many critics, but resist they should. Not only is such a comparison unfair to the band, it's unnecessary. Because in all the ways that matter, Decoration Day is a tighter, more focused record than its sprawling cousin -- leaner and most definitely meaner. Without the awkward kinda-sorta backstory to worry about, the Truckers sink their teeth into a batch of poignant and ill-tempered songs about love and death and various permutations thereof (incest, suicide), among other subjects, all of them focused through the prism of what it means to be a man discounted and devoid of options south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Of course, those threads run through much of the Truckers' work, most especially Opera, but here, singer-guitarist-songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley dispense not only with Opera's ungainly reach but the crowd-pleasing goofiness of earlier songs like "Buttholeville," and the resultant clarity of purpose creates an emotionally resonant disc, reflective but unstintingly urgent. "Hell No, I Ain't Happy" charges out of the stall with the roughneck abandon of classic Crazy Horse as it looks back on the ups and downs of life on the road ("Never homesick, ain't got no home") and shrugs off an actual near-death experience ("Seen my number fly by on Interstate Ten"). And on the unrepentant ballad "Heathens," Hood sings lines like "I don't need to be forgiven" and "She ain't revved 'til the rods are thrown" with a weathered conviction.

Hood, the band's principal songwriter, is also its clearest, most distinctive and conscientious voice, whether channeling anguished rage ("Do It Yourself," a short, spiked rocker about a friend's suicide), or hard-won emotional perspective (the bittersweet "(Something's Got to) Give Pretty Soon," an album highlight that sifts through the fallout of a divorce). He also further proves his bona fides as a capable storyteller, as on the brother-sister incest tale "The Deeper In," the evocative "Sink Hole" (a fierce saga about losing the family farm that would do Steve Earle proud) and "My Sweet Annette," a countrified lament about running off with your intended's maid of honor. Decoration Day also makes clear what an effective instrument Hood's singing voice can be, a prickly, saddle-full-of-burrs drawl perfectly married to his words.

But if Hood is the group's visionary and most compelling writer, the Drive-By Truckers are a far, far cry from the Patterson Hood Band. Mike Cooley, already a strong voice (musically and lyrically), proves just how indispensable he is to the band's makeup. "When the Pin Hits the Shell," about the same suicide Hood rails against on "Do It Yourself," is his finest moment here, a contemplative farewell to a friend that struggles through a range of emotions. "I ain't gonna crawl upon no high horse/ 'cause I got thrown off of one/ when I was young and I ain't no cowboy/ so I ain't goin' where I don't belong," he sings with a resolute stoicism, while letting some anger creep in: "I ain't gonna mourn you man, now that you're gone," he promises, adding "The same God you're so afraid is gonna send you to Hell/ is the same one you're gonna answer to/ when the pin hits the shell."

Elsewhere, Cooley's "Sounds Better in the Song" is a sturdy tale of romantic regret, while the rocking "Marry Me," a seeming string of non-sequiturs ("My daddy didn't pull out/ but he never apologized/ rock and roll means well/ but it can't help tellin' young boys lies") strung around a small-town proposal ("I'd rather be your fool nowhere than go somewhere and be no one's"), doesn't fare quite as well; Cooley's convincing, gravel-dusted delivery holding the song together even as it struggles, musically, to break out of a chord progression that threatens to slip into the Eagles' "Already Gone."

Even more promisingly, guitarist Jason Isbell, a newcomer to the band since Opera, contributes two strong, stirring numbers that ring with the legacies fathers pass down to their sons. "Outfit," another album standout, is advice on life and how to live it delivered from one man to his descendent: "Don't call what you're wearing an outfit/ don't ever say your car is broke/ don't worry about losing your accent/ a Southern man tells better jokes." And "Decoration Day" paints a grim portrait of a family feud whose origins are lost to time but whose consequences ring well into the present, long after the narrator's father is claimed by the circle of violence: "My daddy got shot right in front of his house/ he had no one to fall on but me."

If Southern Rock Opera was the Truckers' Operation: Mindcrime, an ambitious concept album that demanded to be taken seriously, then Decoration Day is its Empire, an even stronger collection of songs that builds on its predecessor's sonic foundations while refusing to get stuck in them. Decoration Day adds impressive meat and muscle to the Truckers' hard-charging, post-modern (but never ironic) update of the Southern Rock template, while proving that the band's strength lies in its ornery intelligence.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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