Drive-By Truckers have lost a songwriter and a guitarist since their last album, but English Oceans finds them adjusting with aplomb and turning out another strong record.
Drive-By Truckers have always been Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley’s band. Even with three albums under the belt with Jason Isbell as the band’s third songwriter, and subsequent trio of records with Shonna Tucker in that role, the band always seemed to belong to Hood and Cooley. So it’s no surprise that English Oceans, the band’s first album since the departure of Tucker, feels a lot leaner than the group’s last few records. Objectively, it’s not really that lean, as the record’s 13 tracks clock in at just more than an hour. But it definitely feels that way. It helps that the subject matter is (mostly) a bit lighter this time out, as 2011’s dour Go-Go Boots was dominated by Hood’s rambling true crime tales “Go Go Boots” and “The Fireplace Poker.”
English Oceans also marks the first time that Cooley effectively shares the spotlight with Hood. Despite being a founding member and full partner since the band’s inception, Cooley has always sort of been regarded as the band’s secret weapon. He was the man whose classic country baritone voice and spare, quick-witted lyrics provided a refreshing change of pace three or four times an album from Hood’s more elaborate storytelling and thin tenor vocals. This time around, though, Cooley has six songs, Hood has six songs, and Cooley sings a Hood-penned track for the first time. This even split turns out to be a near-perfect adjustment to the band’s lack of a third songwriter for the first time in a dozen years, as it keeps the album from feeling like a Hood record attributed to the whole band.
Album opener “Shit Shots Count” is a bright, mid-tempo rocker filled with Cooley witticisms. “Put your cigarette out and put your hat back on / Don’t mix up which is which” begins the song, and is quickly followed by “Boss ain’t as smart as he’d like to be / But he ain’t nearly as dumb as you think.” This is the sort of song the Truckers have always done well, and Brad Morgan’s steady drumming really drives the song, at least until the coda in the final minute. At that point a ‘70s soul-style horn section pops up out of nowhere and provides a welcome accompaniment to the song’s final guitar solo.
Throwing an unexpected curveball near the end of songs is a tactic the band uses effectively a few more times on the album. “Pauline Hawkins” is a Hood song that scrapes the seven-minute mark, featuring a pissed-off protagonist who is sick of taking crap from her significant other. It’s also a mid-tempo rocker, although this one is ably underpinned by Jay Gonzalez’s organ and piano playing, giving the song a bit more body musically. But after four minutes, the song stops dead to give Gonzalez a chord-drenched piano solo, accompanied only by the feedback from Hood’s guitar. Of course, this piano solo is immediately followed by a more traditional coda where Hood and Cooley trade guitar solos for 90 seconds, but, still, it’s temporarily a very different sound for the band. Album closer “Grand Canyon” is a widescreen epic from Hood, with big, open guitars and organ, and a simple, catchy, riff that anchors the track. The song is a tribute to the band’s longtime friend Craig Lieske, who died unexpectedly in 2013, and its elegiac lyrics wrap up after about five minutes. The music fades into noise about a minute later, but then Morgan’s drumbeat comes back in, and the band quietly jams around that beat for another two minutes. It’s the kind of choice that would seem indulgent elsewhere on the album, but in the context of an album-closing tribute song, it works very well.
Cooley contributes a pair of songs that are also welcome sonic departures. “Made Up English Oceans” seems to be sung from the point of view of a political strategist, complete with matter of fact lyrics about getting people to believe whatever soundbites he puts in his candidate’s mouth. Musically, the song rides atop a syncopated, chugging acoustic guitar rhythm that completely avoids the strong beat, leaving that to Morgan’s kick-snare pattern and new bassist Matt Patton’s quiet bassline. “Natural Light” is a laid-back country ballad anchored by Gonzalez’s honky-tonk piano. That honky-tonk feel is a perfect vehicle for Cooley’s voice, and Gonzalez gives the band the ability to pull it off.
Everything on English Oceans doesn’t work quite as well as that. The Hood-Cooley collaboration “’Til He’s Dead or Rises” initially sounds just a bit … off, somehow. Turns out it’s because Hood and Cooley have such distinct songwriting styles (and have been displaying those styles for so long) that Cooley singing Hood’s melody and lyrics just sounds weird. Also, this is a song that has a line that would make a decent couplet in a verse, “She’ll ride him until he’s dead / Or rises to the occasion”, being used as the chorus. And it’s a chorus that’s repeated ad nauseum. Hood’s acoustic ballad “Hanging On” essentially tells the story of a man’s lifetime in four minutes, and has a catchy little synth figure in between the verses. But this one is Hood in pure storytelling mode, and, as has occasionally happened in the past, he seems so focused on the lyrics that he’s neglected to find any sort of compelling melody beyond that little synth bit. The end result is a four-minute song that feels much, much longer than that. While Gonzalez more than earns his keep on the album, stepping in to play some guitar as well as keyboards, former guitarist John Neff (who left to join Shonna Tucker’s band) is dearly missed on “First Air of Autumn.” This Cooley song is quite good, with softly rolling drums and interlocking acoustic guitar lines. But Neff was a pedal steel specialist, and once your ear notices how well a pedal steel guitar would fit in the song, it suddenly feels like the track is missing an integral piece.
English Oceans is a typically strong album from Drive-By Truckers. It doesn’t touch the band’s early 00’s run of Southern Rock Opera, Decoration Day and The Dirty South, but it’s nice to hear Cooley fully embracing his status as co-leader of the band. The adjustment from having a three-guitar lineup to two-and-a-half guitars plus keyboards is a subtle one, but Hood, Cooley, and Jay Gonzalez really take advantage of those keyboards. Some of their experiments work out really well while others fall a bit flat. In between, though, songs like “When He’s Gone”, “Primer Coat”, and “When Walter Went Crazy” are just the kind of tracks we all expect from the band at this point. The Drive-By Truckers know how to write unflinching character studies backed by sturdy southern rock, and they still do it extremely well.