With a seemingly endless whirlpool of fucked up news, social media has reached the point where the running commentary is a cacophony of misguided hate speech and uninformed opinions. Few intelligent, sensible voices are able to rise above the throng, even amongst artists and journalists. Yet, with their new album American Band, venerable rockers the Drive-By Truckers have done exactly that. Being able to translate these kind of raw emotions and viewpoints into songs takes due diligence as an artist. On American Band we find ourselves on a rollercoaster ride of sharp political commentary and self-reflection, and a fun if not painful one at that.
Normally when a band commits to making a “political album” it can come loaded with self-indulgence. This is not the case here as the Truckers clearly entered the writing process and studio with a clear-cut vision of what they wanted to say and how they intended to deliver the message. Though there is self-reflection throughout the album, it’s not about the bloated political views of egotistical rockers, but rather about real shit that affects us all. Like many a DBT song, each track on American Band hones in on a specific story or incident and uses the narrative as a larger commentary on the state of this country as a whole.
“Ramon Casiano” starts off with a soaring guitar hook and drumbeat to accompany Mike Cooley’s biographical commentary on a particularly ugly incident involving the head of the NRA. This sets the tone for what’s to come as the album unfolds. “Darkened Flags” is a Southerner’s take on the Confederate flag controversy that feels more aligned with Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” than it does with the grim if not romanticized depiction of the South on past Truckers albums.
One of the most moving songs is “Guns of Umpqua”, written in the wake of a mass shooting that occurred in Oregon at roughly the same time Patterson Hood relocated to the state. It’s a solemn number and one that dwells on the plight of all Americans as we try to live life while around us the country seems to fall to shit amidst gun violence. Hood seems to captures the feeling many of us have felt on those days when everything seems perfect and we suddenly hear the news of yet another brutal episode of senseless violence. In this case, it’s personal. Later Hood brings it back to Oregon with “When the Sun Don’t Shine”, a self-reflective song about Hood’s move to Oregon, and one of the more positive tunes on the album. Here’s a Southern boy coming to terms with the fact that the world doesn’t begin and end with the South as he references roses, weather, clouds, earthquakes, smoking hash.
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“Filthy and Fried” is one of the album’s biggest songs, both musically with Jay Gonzales’ shimmering organ and lyrically Cooley taking on a nasally Chris Isaac vocal styling while dishing out biting criticism of gender law controversies. “Kinky Hypocrite”, another Cooley gem that brings to mind “Gravity’s Gone” in tune, is a rollicking barroom testament to political corruption that runs rampant, and specifically from them religious types.
One of the hardest hitting songs is “Ever South”, a look at the Syrian immigrant crisis via an examination of American history. This tune seems to fall close to “What It Means”, a stirring look at Black Lives Matter as Hood sings, “Some Kid is dead and buried laying in the ground with a pocketful of Skittles”, wondering “what’s the point of post-racial when those prejudices remain?” Throughout the album, this is some of Hood’s deepest, most direct commentary on the racial injustice of society today. The song also features some of the band’s best playing, locked down in unison with everyone firing away and doing his part perfectly. “Once They Banned Imagine” is a sleeper hit with its reminder of the hysteria that comes when art co-mingles with religion and politics, showing off some of Cooley’s best writing to date and making us all wonder when the hell this guy will release a proper solo album?
American Band is not about the music so much as the lyrical content. That being said, the instrumentation finds the band to be strong, confident and well oiled, seemingly from touring so hard over the last few years. The bottom line is that the Drive-By Truckers have never mattered more than they do right now. They are an embodiment of the fact that we all need to do our part to speak out against injustice and cowardice, even if it only falls on a few ears. This shit matters. After two decades and ten full-length albums – most of which have been praised unanimously by fans and critics – it’s not easy for new material to earn its place in the lexicon of the Drive-By Truckers. Yet somehow, an album that is very much in the moment, American Band is among the band’s very best.
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