Thursday, September 03, 2009

Drive-By Truckers: The Fine Print (A Collection of Oddities and Rarities 2003-2008)

A vault-clearing project is, by definition, at a disadvantage before its content even reaches a listener's ears. Usually consisting of sundry and substandard outtakes best suited for the guillotine, drunken "interpretations" of other artists' work and other abominations, such releases tend to offer little more than an artist or band turning their unwanted children loose, quite literally, at the listener's expense. Of course there will always be notable exceptions - the first Bob Dylan Bootleg Series, the more-recent Tom Waits Orphans set - but too often these releases simply remind listeners why such songs were originally relegated to the dustbin of a band's history.

Drive-By Truckers mostly manages to avoid this stigma throughout The Fine Print (A Collection of Oddities and Rarities 2003-2008). Featuring select recordings from the band's post-Southern Rock Opera period, with a slight emphasis on the Dirty South era, the album is consistently strong and cohesive, often sounding more like a proper studio album than a collection of discarded refuse. Perhaps this is to be expected, as the band spent time in the studio pounding the songs into shape, instead of leaving them in various states of undress and foisting the scraps onto the public. Likely to appeal to both those familiar with the group as well as fans who stopped listening after Southern Rock Opera or The Dirty South, this release shows the band occasionally wandering outside its comfort zone, showcasing the fine qualities that separate DBT from its less innovative country-rock brethren.

While no artist will likely ever match Dylan for bizarre and inscrutable album omissions - think "Blind Willie McTell" and go from there - one has to wonder why several of the stronger tracks here didn't appear on one of the band's previous releases. Opener "George Jones Talkin' Cell Phone Blues" takes the country music icon's 1999 automobile crash as its starting point and finds the Truckers at their raucous best: Patterson Hood's drawled vocals, a driving rhythm and a few testosterone-laden guitars. It's a road song from a band whose catalog is dotted with them, its images whirling by in a blur. An alternate take of "Goode's Field Road" is likewise muscular and aggressive, actually surpassing the cut included on Brighter Than Creation's Dark. "Uncle Frank," with its perpetually beaten-down hero, whose life ends in suicide, is similarly reworked to devastating effect. The album also suggests that the band is equally adept at interpreting other artists' songs. Looking past its tortuously sincere Southern mythologizing, the rendition of Tom Petty's "Rebels" could actually pass for a DBT original. The Warren Zevon songs "Play It All Night Long" and "Ain't That Pretty At All" are cross-bred with bastardized lyrics but stay true to both songs' manic intensity, paying tribute to the deceased musician, while album-closing "Like a Rolling Stone" doesn't massacre the Dylan classic like countless other versions.

Yet, it's when the volume is turned down where The Fine Print's best moments occur. Sung by Jason Isbell in his best wounded voice and utilizing only sparse instrumentation, "TVA" is a beautifully moving track that traces a family's history against the backdrop of the Great Depression and the economic and cultural changes brought about by the FDR's New Deal. Far bleaker in tone but equally reserved in execution, the band's cover of Tom T. Hall's 1971 soldier's lament "Mama Bake a Pie (Daddy Kill a Chicken)" is impossible not to view in contemporary terms. Though the song and its lyrics won't ever be accused of being subtle, the interpretation here retains a certain poignancy and relevance for modern listeners.

Other songs, like the Santa-slaying sex and murder fantasy of "Mrs. Claus' Kimono," the somewhat tedious "The Great Car Dealer War" and the plodding "When the Well Runs Dry," are curiosity pieces at best and far from essential. Even if Drive-By Truckers' unique blend of Southern hypocrisies and dignity can become repetitive at times - "a bunch of sharecroppers against the world" indeed - The Fine Print is about as good as a compilation album can be. Those looking for the Southern desperation and dignity that have made the band's name will find plenty of that here, but other songs break from these confines and prove that the band, despite its popular image, does not always operate within the boundaries of the South's conflicted past. One wonders what other gems are still safely tucked away inside that vault.

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