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Much To-Do About Nothing
on 16 March 2010
There are people who, if asked to describe me, their first line would be "The Drive-By Truckers fan". DBT are definitely my favourite band of the last decade. I REALLY love 'em . . .
. . . well, based on repeat listens over the last week, so far I REALLY hate this album!
I obviously need to qualify that statement. I don't "hate" it as in one-star-review, stick-the-CD-in-the-used-for-sale-section. I "hate" it in that I think it's a deeply disappointing, shoddy piece of work. After the almost-universal, and i.m.o. richly deserved, praise for Brighter Than Creation's Dark, I really believed DBT were ready for cross-over mega-sales status; all they had to do was stay on that righteous path. (Sorry!) The quality that we got in the well-put-together, high class oddities round-up The Fine Print in the meantime also augured well.
But then the warning bells started ringing: the first song I heard ahead of To-Do's release was This F***ing Job. Hmmm, a bit rough, I thought, and what's with the sweary title, when the F-word isn't even in the lyrics? That's not going to get radio airplay, is it? And talking of the lyrics, was it just me, or had Patterson's usual deftness of touch gone out for a ciggie-break whilst he was writing it: this sounded suspiciously like whining. Ach, never mind, I concluded, I'm sure it'll make sense in the context of the whole album.
Then, I read that the album was going to be full-on rock'n'roll. Well, um, I suppose that's great! After all, Buttholeville, Ronnie & Neil, Aftermath USA, That Man I Shot and particularly the behemoth that is Lookout Mountain are some of my all-time favourite riffs from ANY band, and I go back to the days of waiting for the next Led Zep album to come out. Butbutbut ... that's not going to keep the fans won by BTC'sD, is it? And where will Shonna's voice and John's pedal steel fit into full-on rock'n'roll?
Finally, I read that Patterson Hood called BTC'sD "introverted". UH-OH!!! A-a-a-n-n-d... sure enough, this record certainly explodes outwards, but I've no idea what its intended target is. In fact there's the nub of the problem for me: introverted at least implies that they were looking, albeit inwards. Scattered all over The Big To-Do is evidence that DBT weren't looking in any direction; as a result, this reviewer thinks they've taken their eye off the ball, and let a promising situation get away from them.
Evidence? Muddy production (Jeez, David Barbe, what were you doing, man?!) means I can't tell what's what half the time: this is easily the worst sound on a DBT record since Pizza Deliverance. And inexcusably sloppy with it at times: the leap in sound levels from The Fourth Night... to Birthday Boy is already annoying me so much I want to skip one of them to avoid hearing it. And WHAT ON EARTH has happened to all three singing voices??? Shonna's lead vocal debuts on BTC'sD were just gorgeous; a real diamond find in the country-rock scrublands. Here? (It's Gonna Be) I Told You So is a good vocal, but all I can hear is Brad's snare. The most unforgiveable, criminal betrayal on the whole record is You Got Another: a fantastic, FANTASTIC song, but utterly ruined by Shonna sounding so strained and squeaky that I can't yet bear to load it onto my Walkman. Patterson doesn't fare any better: at least three of the songs don't even sound like him. Shut your eyes and picture Neil Young at his most indignant, but without any rage to back it up: it's not pretty! Even Mike Cooley sounds like he's been dragged up a tone out of his laconic comfort zone. Seriously, it's almost as if the entire album's master tapes were transferred to print a bit too fast.
The Fourth Night Of My Drinking is like a self-pitying, humour-free version of the trad. Seven Drunken Nights, and now that I've got the full album context, yes, Mr.Hood, This F***ing Job is just a whinge, lacking the defiance of Buttholeville, or the social comment of The Righteous Path.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not binning the CD. There are good songs (take a bow, Cooley, they're ALL yours!), good ideas (Drag The Lake, Charlie), some as-ever excellent stories being told (The Wig... & ...Wallendas). If it was anyone other than DBT, I'd probably personally rate it at 3 to 3.5 stars (though I wouldn't have been enthused enough to review it). But dagnabit, it IS Drive-By Truckers, and the transfer from rehearsal room to fans' living room has been so slovenly executed that I'm actually angry at the band for letting the record be released like this. Patterson's liner notes - that there were "no big dramas or [personal-life] whoops going on, so everyone was able to put full attention to building the beast" just add insult to injury.
DBT now indeed have a Big To-Do - prove (to me at least) that this is just a false step, not a wrong turn.