Here, let’s have some fun. Put on Southern Rock Opera, the Drive-By Truckers’ breakthrough 2001 double album, and play the first few seconds of each song, like you’re sampling it on the digital listening stations of some defunct retailer. (RIP Borders.) With a couple exceptions — the drums and bass that open “Wallace”, Mike Cooley hollering “I think I’m gonna call the PO-lice!” — every song starts with guitars: noodly guitars, foreboding guitars, guitars that have trouble getting started, guitars that have a loose relationship with soul or boogie or punk riffs. DBT can do different things, but their classic sound is meditative electric guitar worship that somehow congeals into song. To paraphrase minimalist composer Morton Feldman, those six strings are their Walden.
On Ugly Buildings, Whores & Politicians, an overview of their career up ‘til 2009, Drive-By Truckers are a big floppy mess, a wad of hair soaked in Sterling Bigmouth and meat juice. The rhythm section bashes out backbeat after backbeat, and the guitar riffs tend to be what other bands call “chord progressions”. There’s always some stray guitar or pedal steel wheedling over the top of everything else, a little lost stream of consciousness. Singer/songwriter/guitarists Cooley, Patterson Hood, and Jason Isbell sound like they’re discovering their songs as they go, and often as not they neglect to include a chorus. Despite their claim that Lynyrd Skynyrd is “America’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band”, the Truckers are way more Neil than Ronnie.
They’re also uncommonly great — or they can be, when they don’t sacrifice their immense power and start imagining they’re in the short story business. Opera’s “Let There Be Rock” is one of their deepest and most uncanny songs; it’s rock as literature. Ostensibly a requiem for Skynyrd, who Hood never got to see live before their ‘77 plane crash, its bizarre second verse has Hood nearly drowning in his friend’s toilet, and its sublime third verse brags about all the dead musicians he did get to see live. But it wouldn’t be sublime without the band’s mighty crescendo up to Hood’s final “LET THERE BE ROCK!”, roared like a Convair engine.
Drive-By Truckers are less successful when they try more conventional literature. Their slow character-study crap is better than other alt-country bands’ slow character-study crap, but it still sounds like they’re getting warmed up. Hood’s first two songs on Ugly Buildings settle for “interesting”. “The Living Bubba” depicts a Southern singer-songwriter with AIDS, and “Bulldozers and Dirt” is about a redneck who may be a pedophile, but their music is so listless, it’s hard to do more than admire them. Cooley’s “Zip City” is a little better, but I would’ve taken any of his other Opera songs over this rote cad’s chronicle. People always talk about the Truckers’ “attention to detail”, as though they’re writing for National Geographic or something, but who really cares unless they pay the same attention to their music? “Zip City” closes with the couplet, “I got 350 heads on a 305 engine / I get ten miles to the gallon, I ain’t got no good intentions.” Aside from its lack of a hook, that’s hardly different than all those Beach Boys car songs I don’t understand.
Thankfully, as the Truckers’ extensive gay listenership might say, it gets better. Half of these 16 songs are mighty fine, and that number includes character studies like the evil “Sink Hole” and music history lessons like “Ronnie and Neil” and “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac”. I’m still not entirely sure what “Cadillac” is about, but its melody rips off “Mr. Bojangles” with such sweet yearning I can’t help but love it. “Lookout Mountain” is massive; “Marry Me” sounds like a lost Stones classic. 2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark album is absurdly overrated, but this compilation has the courtesy to cherrypick two of its four rockers. “The Righteous Path” is Hood’s meditation on singing one note over and over again, a righteous path of anti-melody. And “3 Dimes Down”! “3 Dimes Down” is a CRAZY song — the guitar tone from the Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”, a story about a laudromat threesome, and two verses (no chorus) of perfect rock ‘n’ roll lines. “Three dimes down and 25 cents shy of a slice of the Doublemint Twins”, indeed. Throw in “Let There Be Rock” and that makes five Hoods, three Cooleys, and no Isbells, which seems about right, though I wouldn’t skip Isbell’s “Outfit” and “Never Gonna Change” if they came on.
Like most compilations, this won’t have everything you want. Don’t ask me why they didn’t include “Self-Destructive Zones” or “That Man I Shot” or whatever your favorite Drive-By Truckers song is; that’s the nature of the comp. Rolling Stone writer David Fricke provides a lovely liner note interview, which seems to indicate that the band oversaw the song selection and approved the messiness. Ugly Buildings closes with Hood’s philosophical “A World of Hurt”, which reminds us, “To love is to feel pain, there ain’t no way around it.” This collection is proof.