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Drive-By Truckers

Decoration Day (New West)

On their last effort, the double-disc Southern Rock Opera, the DBTs dropped an expansive magnum opus that addressed Big Themes like youthful ambitions, racism, the tragedy of Lynyrd Skynyrd, George Wallace and -- above all -- geography and identity, or what they called "the duality of the Southern thang." While Rock Operabroke the band nationally, it also set a high bar, and while their follow-up scales things down in size and scope, it may even prove to be the more satisfying effort.

Coming after their arrival on Rock Opera, Decoration Day serves to cement their title as the new standard-bearers for Southern rock. Like the Gourds, the Truckers are gifted with three distinct songwriters in singer-guitarists Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and new kid Jason Isbell, and here this trio of tunesmiths tackles themes such as relationships -- between fathers and sons as well as men and women -- and the bad choices made by friends, and their aftermaths.

Hood's material is dominant, and his raspy voice spins tales of a bank foreclosing on a farm ("Sink Hole"), a groom ditching a bride for the maid of honor ("My Sweet Annette") and the sort of wild fightin' couple that makes being a neighbor very interesting ("Heathens"). A mutual friend's suicide produces two numbers: Hood's "Do It Yourself" (which recalls Lucinda Williams's "Pineola") and Cooley's "When the Pin Hits the Shell." Cooley also contributes the fine "Marry Me" and the spare closer, "Loaded Gun in the Closet," in which, amazingly, no one is killed.

The Black Crowes they ain't: The DBTs solidfy their 
spot atop the Southern rock roost.
The Black Crowes they ain't: The DBTs solidfy their spot atop the Southern rock roost.

But Isbell proves the biggest surprise, and not just with the title track that dissolves into a triple-guitar coda. His "Outfit" is one of the best and most heartbreaking father-son advice songs ever written, one that oozes with paternal love and regret. "Have fun and stay clear of the needle," he sings, while standing in his father's shoes. "Call home on your sister's birthday." Drummer Brad Morgan and bassist Earl Hicks keep the rhythm together and provide a thumping grounding force.

The all-too-easy Skynyrd/Allman comparisons hold up musically at least part of the time, but the Truckers are by far superior lyricists, in particular Hood. There's a real intelligence and craft in the words here, mostly written as their subjects would actually speak, which is to say without a hint of hick condescension.

Equally proficient at the spare, haunting ballad as the turn-it-to-11 whiskey rock and rollers, the DBTs have made their most honest record with Decoration Day, a Southern gothic journey where the scenery isn't always pretty, but it's no fake rock and roll movie backdrop.

 
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