The good news for Drive-By Truckers fans is that their new album The Big To-Do rarely strays from what the band does best. The bad news is the band’s lyrics are taking on a far greater resonance for millions who have lost their jobs and homes in the Great Recession.
Drive-By Truckers have always been able to blend bar-raising, no-nonsense rocking with vivid character sketches. When the economy was on an upswing in the early part of the last decade, albums like The Dirty South and Decoration Day were as much a part of the playlist for upscale art-school Brooklynites as they were for bricklayers. With stories about double-digit unemployment receiving as much air time as reports of seven-figure bank bonuses, The Big To-Do, just by its timing, brings comparisons to John Mellencamp’s Scarecrow. With that album, Mellencamp went from the blue collar hero of MTV to a voice of rural America left out of the ’80s economic boom.
Not that The Big To-Do is a political statement. It’s hard to imagine Mellencamp putting “This Fucking Job” as a song title during his commercial heyday. Front-to-back, The Big To-Do boasts the strongest collection of songs from the Drive-By Truckers since Decoration Day. The band’s last full-studio album, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark was a great shift in tone that occasionally tripped over its ambitious length. The Big To-Do takes fewer risks, but the songs are just a little tighter, the hooks a little meatier and the overall impact of the first listen a little more immediate.
Anthem-wise, The Big To-Do has at least four undisputed pilsner anthems. The first four songs could easily qualify for Trucker classics. Patterson Hood’s and Mike Cooley’s songwriting effortlessly flows from detailed tales of the loss of a father through the eyes of a child (“Daddy Learned to Fly”) to an unsavory encounter with a lady of the night (“Birthday Boy”). “Drag the Lake Charlie” has a crunching hook made all the more irresistible with Brad Morgan’s percussion.
The first four songs provide an easy entryway to some of the moodier ones. “The Wig He Made Her Wear” starts off as a typical crime story, but the lyrical details of missed church services and Amber alerts give the track the pulpy heft of an Edna Buchanan crime story. On “You Got Another”, bassist Shonna Tucker gives a vocal performance worth every tear in your half-empty whiskey. On that song, the momentum slowly builds, starting with a simple piano backdrop and slide guitar and finishes with a wall of roaring guitars. The song has a ton of stuff going on in the background, but the listener’s attention seldom wavers from Tucker’s vocals. While the band is chiefly responsible for achieving this feat, special credit must also be extended to longtime producer David Barbe.
With a ballad that strong, it’s only fitting that a barnstorming rocker follows. “This Fucking Job” is one of the cheeriest songs in recent memory about choosing a dead-end job over an unemployment check. “Workin’ this job is like a knife in the back / It ain’t getting’ me further than the dump I live in / It ain’t getting’ me further than the next paycheck.” In the age of slashed benefits and frozen wages, the song has the makings of a home commute anthem.
The final few tracks don’t pack quite the punch as the album’s first half. “(It’s Gonna Be) I Told You So” has a memorable chorus, but overall, it’s a track that sounds more like strong background music at bar than a song that demands a listener’s full attention. “The Flying Wallendas” uses the children’s song “The Man on the Flying Trapeze” as a musical foundation, but the song fails to gel.
This is the Drive-By Truckers’ first album on Dave Matthews’ ATO label. In an interview with Spinner, Hood said another Drive-By-Truckers album could possibly be expected by the end of the year. For some bands, the switch to another label provides an artistic jolt, whereas for the Drive-By Truckers, it sounds like business as usual. While The Big To-Do won’t be known for its gambles, its stellar collection of memorable rockers make it a great addition to the band’s already impressive catalog.