[15 November 2013]
With A Tell All, Shonna Tucker becomes the fourth member of Drive-By Truckers to release a solo album. She also becomes the second member of that band to release a solo album after leaving the band. While Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley continue to function as the band’s co-leaders, the group’s third singer-songwriter slot seems to be a difficult one. Jason Isbell departed after approximately five years in the band and a total of eight of his songs across three Truckers’ albums. Tucker spent almost a decade as the Truckers’ bassist, but she leaves five years, six songs, and three albums after she started singing her own material in the band. Hood and Cooley have been working together for decades, and although they seem welcoming of other voices in the band, getting a song in edgewise may be a bit of a tricky prospect.
Tucker’s first outing under her own name arrives as an opportunity with a side of expectations. Tucker’s material in the Truckers ranged from decent to great, and a solo album gives her the chance to branch out in more distinctive ways. A Tell All exceeds its modest expectations and is a very strong debut record. It’s a marked contrast to her ex-bandmate (and ex-husband) Isbell, whose songs for the Truckers were so damn excellent that it took him a full three solo albums to start equaling the sky-high standards he set for himself while in the band. By virtue of being a solid but not absolutely outstanding songwriter in Drive-By Truckers, Tucker went into this album with the perception that she has room to grow. Isbell, perhaps unfairly, was pegged as a fully developed artist who disappointed when he first got the chance to strike out on his own.
A Tell All straddles the line between southern rock, pop, and country, and does it quite effectively. Opener “Since Jimmy Came” is a mid-tempo rocker with roughly four distinct pop hooks. There are the verses, which feature Tucker’s sweet, distinctive Alabama drawl singing over a chiming guitar chord. There’s the chorus with the big sing along “We’ve got all new rules since Jimmy came here / Since Jimmy came / Since Jimmy came.” There’s the post-chorus, where she trades lines like “I know you love me” with short guitar and organ solos. And there’s the true instrumental break, which is actually a trio featuring guitarists Bo Bedingfield and John Neff (who did a stint in Drive-By Truckers himself) and keyboardist Neil Golden harmonizing and trading melody lines. It’s a strong start, and by putting the big, catchy singalong up first, Tucker buys herself time to do other types of songs for a while on the record.
“Your Jealousy” is a plaintive, down-tempo country-rock song with nicely mournful fiddle and guitar parts. This flows into the laid-back, gentle island breeze of “Arielle”. Lyrically, though, the subject matter seemingly involves Tucker’s disdain for a rich pedophile: “Arielle / Nine years old / Good as gold / You messed up her bed.” It makes for an interesting contrast where the pleasant music softens the blow of the harsh lyrics. After this one-two punch, Tucker eases up with the light-hearted “A Family Dinner”. This easygoing country song lets Tucker embrace her vocal resemblance to Dolly Parton as she sings “You can bring something juicy / You can bring something sweet / To the tell all / Family Dinner.”
The back half of A Tell All remains consistently strong. “Linda Please” is a classic-style minor key country track, complete with chugging snare drum and a lively acoustic guitar riff. Meanwhile, Neff provides perfect counterpoint on pedal steel while Tucker’s bass locks in with the drums. The slow, heavy blues-rock of “I Bought a Pie” is a bit lacking in hooks but it’s at least an interesting sonic departure, and the band really digs in and finds a groove. “Lonely People” is a mostly acoustic track that puts the emphasis on a beautiful melody, with some great backing harmonies from the rest of the band. The album closes out with what is probably the album’s second-catchiest earworm, “You Went All the Way”.
Tucker is off to a fine start as a solo artist, and her backing band Eye Candy is clearly a talented group of players recruited from around her home base of Athens, Georgia. While her songwriting and vocals are the focus here, Tucker knows when to step aside and let her bandmates take the spotlight. Guitarists Bedingfield and Neff have great chemistry together, often playing subtly interlocking lines and occasionally trading solos. Tucker and drummer Clay Leverett are locked in as a rhythm section, and Golden may be the band’s secret weapon. He’s not a flashy keyboard player, but he is excellent at creating little accompaniments and countermelodies to Tucker’s main vocal lines. The trick for her now is finding an audience outside of curious Drive-By Truckers fans.