Country music has a rich history of storytelling. Whether it’s Johnny Cash and his tales of drugs and life in the penal system, or Jeannie C. Riley’s life as a kick-ass homemaker in “Harper Valley PTA”, there’s no denying the power of the tales woven by artists across the country spectrum, all to tell a specific story bubbling with universal applicability. Continuing to please the elders, Drive-By Truckers have released their ninth studio album, Go-Go Boots, which holds within it a bounty of tales picked from the kaleidoscope of Southern living. Despite the band’s place in the alternative country/Southern rock movement, this album is still full of some yarns that should have never been woven.
Speaking beyond the storytelling aspect of the record, this album is fairly musically sturdy. Obviously, don’t go in expecting much in the way of experimentation. Instead, the band know how to take the basics of their genre (acoustic guitar, slide guitar, mandolin, fiddle, accordion, and, of course, amazing vocal performances that vary from the style of Waylon Jennings to a Neil Young croon) and make them sound alluring, all while helping to set the feel of the release. “Where’s Eddie”, a simple ditty about a girl looking for her lost love (undoubtedly gone for sinister reasons, but more on that later) features instrumentation that picks up in intensity along with the pained cries of the female protagonist. Album opener “I Do Believe” is endearing for its bright, strummy nature. The slide guitar, in particular, is used across this album to deadly proficiency in order to strike up a dark, troubled mood. With this effort in particular, you can’t judge the band for going truly dramatic. In a letter to fans on their official site, frontman Patterson Hood even compared this record to a noir film. Throughout the 14 songs on the record, it’s clear there’s a pack of mysterious, back-stabbing ne’er-do-wells breathing this effort to life; The flip side to this, of course, is that there’s also a lack of diversity and subtlety.
As one of the bigger tracks from the album (in terms of length and prominence), “I Used To Be A Cop” is rather troubling. Yes, I love the energized, kinetic feel of the tune and even several lines (“Used to be a cop, but I got to be too jumpy” and the bit about the bullet in the box), but it embodies a giant issue with this album: In a collection of relatable material, this song feels too forced, too phony; The same goes for “The Fireplace Poker”. That cut is one of the album’s most emotional and haunting numbers, full of a kind of down-home simplicity that unfolds brilliantly and with a pacing that would leave most country veterans feeling foolish. The thing is, though, the tale of a preacher, his wife, and a botched burglary has a twist straight out of an M. Night Shyamalan movie, which kind of ruins the enjoyable parts of the track as a whole.
Their cinematic exploits, however, aren’t all completely relegated to bad b-movies. In terms of sheer catchiness, there’s arguably no other track like “The Thanksgiving Filter”. Here, Hood’s voice is as “aww shucks y’all” as its ever been, moving through a typical Thanksgiving back home like some redneck spoken word poet, dropping lines like “My aunt’s praising Palin, my niece loves Obama, my uncle came to dinner wearing his pajamas”, painting a gorgeous portrait of Turkey Day as most of us know it: Family is great, but thank God for coma-inducing tryptophan. While it’s the most honest and touching moment on the album, the band can ramp up the cheesiness that inherently comes with doing a record like this, such as “The Weakest Man”. It’s ’70s outlaw country at it best, telling, like so many other songs in the history of music, about an evil woman and a man too weak/stupid to fight her off. These two songs together epitomize the idea that adding a heaping helping of tried and true cinematic methods in order to flesh out an album’s story can work, but, like any good film, the hackneyed stuff will crash and burn accordingly.