Monday, February 14, 2011

Drive-By Truckers: Go-Go Boots

Drive-By Truckers
Go-Go Boots
Rating: 3.7/5.0
Label: ATO Records

Whether or not Drive-By Truckers will ever manage to surpass 2001's Southern Rock Opera - considered the band's high-water mark, as well as one of alt-country's signature records - remains to be seen, but in almost every release since that double album they've managed to come damn close. Aside from their occasionally clumsy debut, Gangstabilly, Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and a revolving cast of cohorts haven't released a bad album yet; few artists with a comparable volume of output in any genre can make that claim. Age hasn't caused the band to settle into a predictable pattern either; previous album The Big To-Do found the band successfully embracing classic rock, leading to some of the most positive reviews of their career.

Expect this general Truckers love-fest to continue with Go-Go Boots, an album that is, generally, the group's most introspective record to date. It's not a quiet album by any means - and parts of it are reminiscent of To-Do, especially the embers of electric guitar that burn on "Ray's Automatic Weapon" and "Used To Be a Cop" - but it's definitely not a, ahem, Southern rock opera, either. There's a Muscle Shoals-meets-Hoosier-blues feel to several songs, especially in the guitar work of the title song - about as sleazy and sordid a song Hood has written, complete with a cheating, murder-arranging man of God and his go-go boot-wearing mistress - and "The Thanksgiving Filter," a mostly bemused, if somewhat cynical, look at a family's numerous eccentricities ("You wonder why I drink and curse the holidays/ Blessed be my family from 300 miles away," Hood deadpans as the song closes). A large chunk of the album is acoustic-oriented with its instrumentation arranged in clean, straight lines; this approach almost always works, especially in "Assholes" - where Hood's vocal delivery coincidentally sounds a whole lot like Jeff Tweedy - and in "Dancin' Ricky," where Shonna Tucker religiously drops the "g" off words (somethin'/dancin'/countin'/spinnin'/actin') like any self-respecting twangy country singer should. Mike Cooley, sounding as much like a Statler Brother as Don Reid ever did, takes lead vocal on "The Weakest Man" and "Cartoon Gold," two plainspoken, traditional country tunes just begging for a Grand Ole Opry airing circa about 50 years ago.

But it's the murder songs that make Go-Go Boots worth its hour-plus running time. As self-contained narratives, the title song, "The Fireplace Poker" and "Pulaski" are flawless, with each song fleshed out with the kinds of articulate, lyrical details that give these songs believability. The manner in which the band tells these tales is similarly engaging and often quite contrasting. In "The Fireplace Poker," Hood practically gives a step-by-step account of the preacher's murder plot, whereas in "Go-Go Boots" he leaves the story to the reader's imagination and clams up like one of his villains might, saying only that, "it took only a little bit of cash and the deed was done." Cooley gives even fewer details in "Pulaski," whose final, and most lasting, image is that of a funeral procession for, presumably, the dead local girl for whom California once "seemed like heaven."

A few down moments on the album prevent it from being a Truckers masterpiece; Tucker's vocals are too bombastic for the tender balladry of the Eddie Hinton song "Where's Eddie," and the album ends with a dull, timid whimper via "Mercy Buckets." But its strengths more than make up for these rare weaknesses, and though Go-Go Boots isn't perfect, like almost every album the band has released since 2001, it's loaded with good stuff and doesn't get consumed by the broad shadow that Southern Rock Opera casts.

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