Calling Drive-By Truckers ‘critically acclaimed’ is like calling Avatar ‘successful’. They have an unbroken string of seven four-and-a-half-star records on Allmusic. They haven’t had a single album receive less than glowing praise. Their papa’s-moonshine concoction of rowdy southern-fried rock, boozy country and, lately, soul, has led some, particularly American, music fans to claim they’re this generation’s Lynyrd Skynyrd or Allman Brothers. It’s also led others to catch a whiff of press hyperbole at its most foul.
To the right people, those names evoke wonderful images of sun-bleached rock ‘n’ roll songs about whisky, women, shotguns and Midnight Riders. As Drive-By Truckers’ back catalogue contains records entitled Southern Rock Opera, The Dirty South and Alabama Ass Whuppin’, you can bet you’re in for more of the same with English Oceans.
But it’s never been just about homage with Drive-By Truckers, at their best they transcend their influences and make really attractive rock sounds not heard for a generation – but at their worst, they are completely indistinguishable from the more recent Dinosaur Jr, Black Crowes or Foo Fighters discs, none of which really inspire repeated listening. Basically, at their worst they make appallingly average ‘rock’ music with an irritatingly samey vibe.
Opener Shit Shot Counts sounds like Black Crowes covering a KISS track – Strutter. It’s a tame way to open the record – the lead guitar solo even sounds tired. It rolls along on standard four-on-the-floor beat (most of the songs on the record do…), occasionally encountering some Brown Sugar horns and ending in a bluster of Space Ace guitar noodling.
When He’s Gone would fit nicely on Farm or I Bet On Sky, the whiny vocal and pseudo-Crazy Horse riffage are tempered by the yawning beat and over-familiar vibe. There’s too much of the same thing going on elsewhere on the record, but the real highlight is the final track. Album tracks like When Walter Went Crazy and The Part Of Him rely heavily on the percussion and guitar sound to make them work, which they somehow do. At times The Part Of Him sounds like Kid Rock pretending to have emotions, or the theme tune for a Deep-South family show. You know the kind.
It turns out it’s not all doom and gloom, as Grand Canyon closes the record, and boy what a track that is. Trading in all of the mediocre tropes of the earlier tracks, this final epic has a running time of seven and a half minutes, and crams each one of them with surprisingly good musicianship and interesting musical flavours. It’s reminiscent of Led Zeppelin at points, what with the loose-sounding snare and booming echo. The morose, plaintive air of the track is exacerbated by the vocals, which yearn and emote in equal measure.
All in all, should you need reminding, it’s a pleasant reminder of how effective mainstream rock music always has been: Drive-By Truckers write hooks that could stay in your head for months. However, there’s got to come a time where they realise that there’s more to music than the sound they’re making, and they have the capability and artistic freedom to do so much more than this. Basically, this is the sound of a band happy to be coasting, which can be a chore to listen to.