[31 August 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
In the wake of the Drive-By Truckers’ split with New West Records this past spring, it’s hardly a surprise that the label is churning out whatever previously unreleased DBT-related material they can scrounge up. And after all, who can blame ‘em? Since picking up the Alabama-bred, Georgia-based band in 2003, the Drive-By Truckers have gone on to become one of, if not the most popular band on the label’s roster, and with a large fan base built solely from years of extensive touring, the demand for new product is definitely there. However, befitting a band who continually puts out superb, meticulously crafted albums, from the songwriting to the artwork, this summer’s two new releases are hardly your usual contractual obligation toss-offs. Released this past July, Live From Austin, TX is a terrific document of the band’s memorable appearance on the PBS series Austin City Limits, while the early September follow-up The Fine Print (A Collection of Oddities and Rarities 2003-2008) puts an interesting twist on the usual “odds and sods” collection we’re normally subject to.
With a wealth of previously unreleased tracks, the Drive-By Truckers could have easily satisfied fans by quickly slapping it all on CD, but it turns out the band had a far better idea. Not only has the CD been limited to a dozen songs, but with the help of longtime producer David Barbe, each has been given a good spit and polish, the additional recording and improved mixes lending the finished product a consistency that we rarely get with such collections. In fact, for a compilation of left-overs and covers, it feels like a cohesive album, one that’s a lot better than most bands’ A material.
Most, if not all of the original songs will be familiar to fans of the band. Dating back as early as 2002, “George Jones Talkin’ Cell Phone Blues” might seem light-hearted by its title, but it turns out to be a heartfelt tribute to the country legend in the wake of his near-fatal car crash in 1999, Patterson Hood offering the sincere plea, “If you don’t change your ways, my friend, you’re gonna be singin’ duets with Tammy again.” Hood’s “The Great Car Dealer War” features his usual eloquent storytelling, while his dark sense of humor is in full gear on the band’s grim holiday staple “Mrs. Claus’ Kimono”. Hood’s longtime co-conspirator Mike Cooley chips in with the eloquent acoustic ballad “Little Pony and the Great Big Horse”, which previously surfaced on the much-loved Live at Cooley’s House bootleg from 2003. Despite having left the band in 2007 to pursue a solo career, we’re treated to a pair of tracks by the talented Jason Isbell. First appearing on a limited edition bonus disc with 2006’s A Blessing and a Curse, “When the Well Runs Dry” might swipe its melody from Bob Dylan’s Wilburys tune “Tweeter and the Monkey Man”, but Isbell’s smooth tenor voice sells it brilliantly. Interestingly, Isbell’s longtime live favorite “TVA” is one of The Fine Print‘s finest tracks, as powerful an evocation of the South as “Decoration Day”, and as elegiac as “Danko/Manuel”.
The album’s four covers are all fitting, yet surprisingly diverse choices. Tom T. Hall’s poetic Vietnam-era ballad “Mama Bake a Pie (Daddy Kill a Chicken)” is given a straightforward country treatment by Hood and his mates, while the fun performance of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” focuses more on the loose, collaborative nature of a Truckers show, with Hood, Cooley, Isbell, and bassist Shonna Tucker each having a turn at the mic. A longtime live fave, Warren Zevon’s great “Play It All Night Long” has always sounded like it was specifically written for the Drive-By Truckers, and indeed, the band tears into the track with a Southern gothic fury, the three guitars screaming away. And ever since appearing at the end of an episode of King of the Hill, the band’s cover of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Rebels” has been long sought-after by DBT completists, and the wait was worth it, the lively, passionate performance trouncing the overproduced Southern Accents original.
A pair of tracks offers different takes of well-known album cuts with varying degrees of success. Cooley’s tragic tale “Uncle Frank” is delivered with much more grit than what we hear on 1998’s Pizza Deliverance, while the sped-up alternate version of “Goode’s Field Road” makes it easy to understand why the bluesy crawl of the Brighter Than Creation’s Dark track was chosen for that album instead. Despite the familiarity of those tracks, however, not for a second do they feel like filler, the hour-long album thoughtfully assembled and sequenced. For a stopgap release, we couldn’t ask for anything better, and in fact The Fine Print spoils us somewhat, as we’re ultimately left wishing more bands would put this much care into such a compilation.