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Blessed Event

 

Drive-By Truckers: A Blessing and A Curse

New West, 2006

Rating: 4.3

 

Posted: April 21, 2006

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Three years ago, in a review of Drive-By Truckers' Decoration Day, this writer (tongue somewhat in cheek) compared the band's career breakthrough, Southern Rock Opera, to the heavy metal concept album Operation: Mindcrime. Now, obviously, the Truckers aren't much like Queensryche, save for the fact that those two albums considerably elevated their respective bands' game and public profile. If anything -- as long we're in a comparing mood -- A Blessing and A Curse, the Athens quintet's sixth studio album, suggests that they have more in common with Rush: Like Decoration Day and 2004's The Dirty South, Blessing is a cohesive theme album on a par with that band's latter-day output.

The theme in question, as the title suggests, is duality -- specifically, as ringleader Patterson Hood puts it on the closing "A World of Hurt": "'To love is to feel pain' / There ain't no way around it." That hard truth informs a number of the eleven songs on Blessing: There's the elegiac "Goodbye," a sober and contemplative valediction to a once-unbreakable friendship grown distant; "Little Bonnie," about a boy who lives with a family's enduring pain over a sister who died before he was even born; and Mike Cooley's soberly mournful "Space City," in which a widower reflects that "I ain't ashamed of anything my hands ever did / But sometimes the words I used were as hard as my fist."

Elsewhere, the notion of duality plays out in less specific ways. On the kick-start opener "Feb 14," Hood raggedly implores a lady-love to "Be my valentine" despite being greeted by "Flowers flying 'cross the room / Vases smashed against the floor." In these songs, the pain of loving takes a back seat to the pain of simply living. "Aftermath USA" finds a hard-partying man waking up to a harsh reality of "Crystal Meth in the bathtub / Blood spattered in my sink" and finding hints of infidelity in his car: "Smell of musk and deception / Heel marks on the roofline / Bad music on the stereo / All the seats in recline."

That song's protagonist never quite acknowledges that he might need to change his ways, but that deficit is made up on two of the album's stronger tracks. Cooley's bracing "Gravity's Gone" laments a world where "What used to be is gone and what ought to be ought not to be so hard," with a chorus as hard to shake as the realization that "I've been falling so long it's like gravity's gone and I'm just floating." Similarly, Jason Isbell's "Daylight" boasts an indelibly soaring shout-along chorus, its narrator allowing that "I might look these lessons in the eye."

But Blessing's thematic threads aren't confined to the lyrics of its three accomplished songwriters. In the tradition of Southern Rock Opera, which dove trucker-cap-first into the thick chords and triple-guitar boogie of Lynyrd Skynyrd as a metaphor for punks and rockers coming of age in the Deep South, Blessing plays out its subject matter on a musical level. That blessing and curse of the title could just as easily refer to the Southern Rock tag with which many identify the Truckers since the release of Opera.

While there are unmistakable traces of that swampy, sweaty sound, particularly in the three-guitar sturm und twang of the title track, at other points the Truckers openly embrace their rock and punk roots, as if hoping to stomp that nettlesome Southern Rock label into the ground. The aforementioned "Aftermath" nicks the classic carnal boogie of the Rolling Stones circa the '70s, while "Feb 14" and the quick, jagged "Wednesday" lay bare Hood's oft-cited love of the Replacements.

Those influences are more pronounced on Blessing than ever before, but their presence isn't a major shock to anyone who's dug beneath the surface Skynyrd riffing of Opera. It's a more subtle change than one might expect, but no less profound for that fact. The same is true the song's looser, more general narratives, which dial down the specific geographic references and story-songs about Southern icons -- Ronnie VanZant, Buford Pusser, Carl Perkins, George Wallace -- that have graced past Truckers records.

More shocking than those omissions is the declaration Hood makes at the end of "A World of Hurt," intoning that "It's great to be alive" with a grave restraint more powerful, in its way, than the forceful sermon that Cowboy Mouth drummer Fred LeBlanc often makes of the same sentiment. It's not an outlook that flows in abundance in the band's catalog, but like the musical and lyrical shifts Blessing so deftly navigates, it nonetheless feels right. On an album full of contrasts, that seeming contradiction resonates loudest and longest.

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