Archive | March 2014

Drive-By Truckers Continue Their Run of Thoughtful Songwriting and Straight-Up Rock & Roll with ‘English Oceans’

This review was originally published at You can read it in its original form here.

English Oceans has a few dead bodies. The album has some strippers, asshole politicians, broken relationships, girls making clowns of men, and people in small towns working jobs they hate. Which is to say, it’s a Drive-By Truckers album. And a damn good one at that. While their last record, 2011’s Go-Go Boots saw the band tip-toeing into R&B and Southern soul, English Oceans is a more focused effort that finds them eager to lay into their latest cast of motley characters over stomping, crunching riffs.

Drive-By Truckers

In general, I’ll admit to being skeptical of the storytelling style of songwriting. There are a lot of songwriters that throw in a handful of proper nouns, add some folksy wisdom, and tie it together with a facile ending. What separates a truly skilled songwriter from the rest is when those details add up to something meaningful, when a songwriter is able to turn a collection of stories into a cast of characters so that the situations, disconnected as they may be, are able to play off of each other to say something bigger than what any one individual story line can offer.

Patterson Hood’s songs on this record pull this off masterfully, examining relationships from differing points of view. Though the stories don’t appear to be connected, they work together to create something larger than themselves. There’s the woman in “Pauline Hawkins” resisting the bonds of genuine connection (“Love is like cancer / And I am immune”) pressed against the one in “When He’s Gone” clinging to a relationship that’s gone south (“She can’t stand him when he’s around / But she always misses him when he’s gone…”) The protagonist in “Hanging On” exhausts her familial relationship and ends up a wanderer searching for a replacement while “Walter Went Crazy” details a man driven mad by suburban life who burns down the house with his wife inside, “Matlock on the TV screen and her mama on the phone.” The album ends with “Grand Canyon”, written for a recently deceased friend of the band. Where most songwriters would try to wring every bit of pathos they could from such heavy subject matter, Hood opts for a more understated route, so that when the line “And I wonder how a life so sturdy / Could just one day cease to be” slips in it hits all the harder for it. After case studies on relationships broken, breaking, and doomed, we’re left with one that continues on even after they’re gone.

Cooley’s songs, on the other hand, don’t aspire for such thematic continuity, but lyrically this might be his best batch of songs to date. He has a talent for hiding profound wisdom in the most mundane situations and no where is that more apparent than the first verse of “Shit Shots Count”. What starts as small town scene setting, “Put your cigarette out and put your hat back on / Don’t mix up which is which” turns pensive quick, “Suburban four lanes move like blood through an old man’s dying heart / Nothing but time to keep hope alive at the speed of a stream of tar…” Not that you need a lyric sheet to fully appreciate it, the song’s a shit kicker in it’s own right with a riff that sounds like churning a bucket of nails while lead guitar pierces through the mesh and the ascending bass line on the changes emerges from behind the clatter, lays down legs and barrels the whole thing over. “First Air Of Autumn”, on the other hand, is a slice of gentle folk with a quick heartbeat, not so much a story as scene setting with the occasional jab for the gut, “First air of autumn up your nose / Popcorn, heavy hairspray, nylon pantyhose / Please stand and bow your heads and pray you don’t get old…”

But it’s the almost-title-track “Made Up English Oceans” that proves to be the crux of the record. Based around an incessant acoustic guitar strum, Cooley lets out quick witted venom against backwards politics and the ones who believe it “See, once you grab them by the pride their hearts are bound to follow / Their natural fear of anything less manly or less natural… ‘Cause only simple men can see the logic in whatever / Smarter men can whittle down so you can fit it on a sticker… They’ll live it like it’s gospel and they’ll quote it like it’s scripture…” It’s followed by Hood’s “Part Of Him”, a scathing take down set to the catchiest riff on the record and a jaunty beat. The wistful delivery belies the anger in lines like “He was elected / wing-nut raised and corn fed / tea bags dragging on the chamber floor.”

Now all that isn’t to say the album’s without fault. Most songs are a little too willing to find a riff and ride it through until the end of the song, coming and going without offering the kinds of dynamics and hooks that attract non-believers.

But that’s kind of missing the point. English Oceans thrives on the confidence of the songwriting. It’s a record whose stories, lyrics, and riffs construct a world meant to be lost in and experienced. There’s not a whole lot of bands who continue to show growth and refinement 10 albums in, but with English Oceans, the Drive-By Truckers show they have a lot more to offer.


The Roots’ ‘Things Fall Apart’ Turns 15

This review was originally published at  You can read it in its original form here.

15 years ago today The Roots released Things Fall Apart, easily among their finest records. While it’s a damn good album by a band that’s been making compelling hip hop (and putting on one of the best live shows of any genre) for the past two decades, what might be most interesting about Things Fall Apart is what it failed to be, and how in the end it didn’t really matter.


Things Fall Apart was supposed to be the start of a new era for The Roots. Three albums in with a moderate hit under their belts, this should have been the work that pushed them over the edge. With the newly formed Soulquarians, this record was also supposed to introduce the world to their vision for music in the new millennium. Albums by Erykah Badu and D’Angelo were waiting in the wings and Things Fall Apart was to be the first shot fired in a string of would-be classic records. In practice Things Fall Apart was successful, though it fell shy of its grand ambitions.

roots-tfaThe record produced a hit with “You Got Me” and ended up going platinum, but that was pre-file-sharing, and the single peaked only at #39. And while the Soulquarians went on to produce some great Neo-Soul albums, the movement was looking more like a footnote by the time the mid-2000s rolled around. Interestingly, though, drummer and bandleader ?uestlove seemed to have seen this coming. The album starts with an excerpt from Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, a heated exchange on the characters’ frustration at not reaching the audience they want. The final shot is “you grandiose motherfuckers don’t play shit that they like, if you played the shit that they like the people will come!” countered by another voice (not from the movie): “inevitably hip-hop records are treated as though they are disposable; they’re not maximized as product even, not to mention as art.”

It’s this dichotomy that informs The Roots’ approach here, and might help explain why the album never attained those grand ambitions. Things Fall Apart desperately wants to connect, to be a part of the fabric of Hip Hop, but is unwilling to do it on anyone else’s terms. What it seems the Roots intended to do with Things Fall Apart and the Soulquarians records in general is to internalize and expand on their heroes (Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, etc. according to liner notes). Their humble quest was to make timeless music and have it resonate with the world. All bullshit, numbers, and context aside, that doesn’t really matter, because what we have 15 years later is a great Hip Hop record.

Which might be a bit of an undersell. Musically and compositionally Things Fall Apart sees the Roots at the height of their powers. As a pure headphone experience, not many records even aspire to what The Roots pull off here. The bass is luxurious, the pocket in every song extra-deep allowing details to skitter in and out from ear to ear. The arrangements are complex but never feel overstuffed, every part has its place, though it might take you a few dozen listens to hear each one.

Take “Act Too (Love Of My Life)”; what starts as a simple three-note horn melody is doubled, then tripled. Sampled female vocals add rhythm, a syncopated bass line wafts in from three closed doors away, and by the time you work out what’s happened the parts snap into focus, Black Thought’s verse is front and center and what should have been a ho-hum by the book buildup becomes something much more. That’s not even considering the lyrical contributions from Black Thought and Common (including Common’s near thesis statement in the line “when we perform it’s coffee shop chicks and white dudes”) or the gorgeous Philly Soul string section the track sees itself out on.

Every song on display here stands up to similar dissection and if nothing else, this record deserves a revisit for that reason alone. And though Things Fall Apart didn’t quite live up to its makers lofty aspirations, The Roots didn’t need it to in order to reach the level of universal respect as musicians and cultural ambassadors they’ve strived for. And they didn’t even need to rewrite history to do it, they just had to sign up as the Late Night house band for an SNL-dropout.