Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Hands Off the Wheel

By now, it can't be a surprise that the Drive-By Truckers' odds & ends album is better than most. The Fine Print - due out next week - is their sayonara to New West Records, who evidently were displeased with the decidedly un-big rock Brighter Than Creation's Dark. Fortunately, their sweepings and leftovers still have a lot of meat on them, but the greatest pleasure of the album might be that they've never seemed more relaxed or had more faith in the car to find its own way home.

The opener, "George Jones Talkin' Cell Phone Blues," presents them in their country rock mode addressing their cultural heritage, but they do so with a lighter touch, unable to escape the comic image of No-Show Jones on the riding lawnmower his struggles with modern technology. "Mrs. Klaus Kimono" almost mocks the band itself, bringing its love of foreboding to a horny elf that has the hots for Santa's wife. Even Hood's veteran-coming-home-legless song "Mama Bake a Pie" eases up. He sings the sardonic comeback, "Since I won't be walking / guess I'll save some money buying shoes" over an atypically bouncy, almost pop melody that prevents his saga of a life falling apart from becoming unbearable to listen to.

There are some unnecessary tracks. I don't think anybody needs to cut the covers they do live - they're better as surprises - but the versions of Tom Petty's "Rebels" and Warren Zevon's "Play It All Night Long" are good fun. Hood, Shonna Tucker and Jason Isbell each take a verse, but Dylan's words and sentiment suit Hood's vocal talents particularly well. The moralist, good ol' boy, punk, student, historian and smartass in him all come out in a perfectly unified vocal, much the same way that Dylan's one voice slyly incorporated many points of view. The other verses are good, but none are as revelatory as his.

Similarly, alternative versions are rarely special, and the world will keep spinning just fine whether anyone hears alternate versions of "Uncle Frank" and "Goode's Field Road," the latter of which churns along in the Truckers' default mode. Still, a slightly undersold vocal with less drama in the arrangement makes the song more chilling.

After "George Jones Talkin' Cell Phone Blues," the highlight is "The Great Car Dealer War," which sounds like it came from The Dirty South era. Like so much of that album - and the best DBT songs - it takes us into a mundane life that would be comic if not for the desperate choices their characters have to make to live in America these days. But the converse is also true; their grim moments have touches - like the song's title - that never let you forget that there's a joke in there somewhere. On The Fine Line, that nugget of humor, dark as it is, isn't buried as deeply as it is on other albums, and a lack of dread is welcome once in a while.

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