Number Eight: Jason Isbell – Southeastern (2013)

Southeastern Records ■ SER 9984
Released June 11, 2013
Produced by Dave Cobb




Side One: Side Two:
  1. Cover Me Up
  2. Stockholm
  3. Traveling Alone
  4. Elephant
  5. Flying Over Water
  6. Different Days
  1. Live Oak
  2. Songs that She Sang in the Shower
  3. New South Wales
  4. Super 8
  5. Yvette
  6. Relatively Easy

I suppose it’s a given that I know Isbell from the Drive-By Truckers, but the truth is I got into them via 2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, which postdates both his final album with the band (2006’s A Blessing and a Curse) and his debut solo record (2007’s Sirens of the Ditch). This put me in the strange and seemingly unenviable position of liking a band in what was considered a reduced state; many felt they’d declined severely after his exit, even with the natural caveats for the remaining members. It made me–as such things do–wary of his solo work, as it doesn’t give the greatest impression of anyone’s fans to often couch that fandom in dismissal of something else.

Still, during a random bit of shopping in 2010, I ran into his second post-DBT album, the one which eponymously named his band the 400 Unit, and fell madly in love (after all, wariness is not cause for dismissal, either!) with it. Since then, of course, he has released, inbetween that and this, 2011’s Here We Rest, still with the 400 Unit, and in post-or-mid-I’m-not-quite-sure start to sobriety. A lot of people prefer that record and this one, as I even found zero songs from that favourite four years ago in the last set I saw him play.
A lot of people called this one out around release as a pretty solid candidate for album of the year (the first I recall being someone I used to work with) and in principle I most definitely cannot disagree. Here We Rest felt a little more scattered to me than Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit–not weaker, mind you, just less focused. While Southeastern abandons a lot of the rock that drives that self-titled record (not all, though), it stays the course it chooses to perfectly to find any criticism in this.
“Cover Me Up” begins a small chain of breath-taking odes to Isbell’s wife, Amanda Isbell (née Shires), though perhaps the only one explicitly and directly that: it’s Jason accompanied only by himself, albeit multi-tracked. But as it starts, it’s just his lone acoustic, and his voice, with his slide creeping in only at the edges, crisp and lively. It rolls along at a steady pace, his voice low and almost whispered in its intimacy, but reaches for the ceiling at the chorus, and very nearly tears through it.
Should you feel discomfort with that intimacy, it is interrupted at the right moment by the shift to “Stockholm”, which brings a full band into play–not quite the 400 Unit, though it shares with the Unit Chad Gamble on Drums and Derry (ex-Son Volt) DeBorja on keys. Though the instinct, particularly in light of the lyrics, is to expect the mutually musical Amanda to join him, the voice heard alongside him is that of Kim Richey. DeBorja gets his most powerful appearance on the record here, the shuffling thump of Gamble and Brian Allen’s bass anchors it, but it is moved most explicitly by those keys, and, to some extent, the fried, electric riffs of Isbell himself. It’s love as Stockholm Syndrome, but with no intimations of negative association beyond the name itself–it’s the captivity breeding intimacy, but not the sense of forced captivity (though one can’t be certain: then-Shires was the one who ended up sticking him in rehab).
My father–who shares my appreciation, and got the album for Father’s Day from me–has told me that he has heard a fair bit of play on the radio for “Traveling Alone”, and it’s understandable, as it’s something like a balance between the heartfelt, unfiltered emotion of “Cover Me Up” and the power and winking joy of “Stockholm”, and this time it is Amanda alongside him, not only harmonizing but adding her fiddle to the track. In a strange way, it’s just vaguely reminiscent of Whiskeytown’s matching of Caitlin Cary’s fiddle with Isbell’s recent tourmate and friend Ryan Adams’s voice. Amanda’s playing shows that she typically fronts a band on her time, though, having a bit more elbowed jostling to the front in it–not in a bad way, but indicative of the playing that she does.
I don’t pay enough attention to know for certain that it’s seen this way, but I have difficulty imagining there aren’t a fair number of people treating “Elephant” as the centerpiece of the album. It’s another purely solo track (so long as we allow time-traveling clones to count, or however you would count overdubs), and it’s emotionally bare in entirely another fashion–the word doesn’t appear for a number of verses, and even then isn’t used in a way that literally states it, but it’s plain that Jason (as “Andy”) is singing of a dear friend lost to cancer. A writer like Isbell is ideal for addressing this: there’s rumpled reality to both “Andy” and his friend, with her actual character described in the song outside of what is happening to her, and Andy’s description of events conveying it instead. The elephant that’s in the room, though he says they both ignored it, we can hear from his point of view is not being missed at all, with her instead defiantly ignoring it outwardly, even “mak[ing] cancer jokes”. There’s no telling, without trawling interviews, if it is personally real, or some kind of amalgamation of experiences–and it doesn’t matter. It hits exactly as it should, never becoming syrupy, or even overly morose, defining itself with its last variation on the bridge and chorus: “There’s one thing that’s real clear to me, no one dies with dignity, we just try to ignore the elephant somehow.”
After the weight of “Elephant”, another electrified track like “Flying Over Water” is very welcome: it’s also back to a full band, though the pounded out intro gives way to loose electric chords, Jason’s voice and quiet taps on the rim from Gamble. Much of the time I am miserable at ascertaining lyrical intention from a songwriter who is not absolutely explicit, but I’m left with the notion that this is about the move (which is explicitly referenced, or damn near it) Isbell made from Muscle Shoals (in Alabama) to Nashville, TN. It’s questioning, concern, worry about a change, a move–and what might be lost in the process, it seems.
Though it begins with hints that it will return to the solo approach, Allen’s bass joins him early, and DeBorja flavours the largely acoustic chord-based “Different Days” with keys. Isbell straddles something like mourning for the life he used to live and an approving embrace of what comes now–mourning may not be the word, as there’s more regret in the days than there is to leaving them.
Side Two opens with perhaps the most haunting track: “Live Oak”. Introduced purely a cappella, I missed a lot of details in the song when I first heard it that clarify that it is not directly autobiographical–a history of murder, robbery, and having a sheriff on his back. Indeed, this is driven home by the muted, chunky, low, burnt chords of a guitar that emulates the kind employed by Ennio Morricone, crossed with the less dramatic version of the same used by the likes of Sun Records-era Johnny Cash. But, though I missed all that, I was not wrong in hearing autobiography, Isbell has admitted–there’s a fear of what he lost of himself in sobriety, hinted at in the track that closed Side One, but here made explicit, in the context of the relationship that inspired “Cover Me Up”–a scary thing indeed.
Sliding back in time, “Songs She Sang in the Shower” is the spiky, hell-raising not-yet-sober kind of Isbell: as described, it oozes with regret and self-doubt, but tempered by the fatalistic, “I deserve this” kind of thinking that tends to perpetuate that. It’s never more clear than after “she” leaves: “In a room by myself, looks like I’m here with the guy that I judge worse than anyone else”. And as such things often are, he’s stuck on the most seemingly innocuous of reminders, the songs that she sang in the shower, which “experience tells me that I’ll never hear them again, without thinking of then”.
“New South Wales” brings some much-needed warmth to the album after that string of tracks, with Allen and Gamble acting only as a light anchor behind what largely remains an effectively solo track. While the first two songs on the album are clear in describing love as the finding of home, here it’s just the finding of something that amounts to home, however it’s arrived at, the notion of finding a place that feels safe and warm and, well, home-y.
Finally shifting things into an out-and-out rollicking rock movement, “Super 8” breaks the delicate tension of emotions and sounds that preceded it with the lick of flame that is the wild and “sloppy” slide of a well-done barnstormer. A sense of humour about wild days past and the decision to make them exactly that–past, not wild–the most ridiculous phrasing of it: “Don’t wanna die in a Super 8 Motel, just because somebody’s evening didn’t go so well, if I ever get back to Bristol I’m better off sleeping in the county jail.” A morning that finds him “not quite breathing” that ends momentarily with “looks like that’s all she wrote” and the song seems like a kind of “Holy shit, this is not the way to do this”, kind of moment, just a good slathering of understatement.
Unbelievably mournful slide announces that “Super 8” was but a flitting relief. “Yvette” is about a girl the singer sees with “cut glass eyes” and “covered up head to toes, so nobody will notice you”. In response he sings, “I might not be a man yet, but your father will never be, so I’m cleaning my Weatherby”. It’s not about the song moving toward justice, it’s about the response this narrator has to this: there may be some sense of justice found in it, but it’s just something like the way Isbell chooses to address things like this–there’s no joy, relief, or pride in his voice, just the sense that he feels this is the only solution, ensuring that her father will simply never be. It’s not treated as right, or, for that matter, wrong. 
“Relatively Easy” is some relative of the comparative depth of problems phrased in the right way: it’s about seeing hope and goodness knowing things could be worse, not about reducing the problems that are via that comparison. And the word “relatively” manages to capture that almost perfectly. Kim Richey joins again on vocals, and the track is sad and quiet in sound, as it does recognize that problems remain real, but finds some light around those problems. The chorus is my favourite on the record, the way that their voices don’t drop a syllable in the whole beat, only speeding or changing for that word “relatively” as it is a difficult word to use here, as it’s attempting to encompass relativity in itself, which is not something any word should have to do alone. But it’s a damn fine closer for the record.
Listening to this, I was forced to remind myself how I had scaled my future choices going up (or is it down?) the list, and to shrug and settle for reasons I’ll address as time goes on, but none of those reasons relate to any downfall for this particular record. While there are a number of people I discuss music with on most occasions we interact, there are others who almost never say a word, and one of those is my mother–she was very pleased with the clever word choices in “Elephant” and said so at the moment she heard them. I don’t know that I can really work that into some kind of largely-silent-but-speaks-when-it-matters judgment, but certainly the lack of focus on music means that there’s a clearer sincerity when she hears something she likes.
If forced, I would probably render the old “favourite” versus “objectively better” comparison when it comes to Isbell’s work, now. I’m inclined to believe that this is indeed the staying work as things stand, even if that self-titled album remains my personal favourite. Which means, of course, that you would be well-served checking into this record for yourself!
  • Up Next: Number Seven!
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Alejandro Escovedo – Real Animal (2008)

Back Porch/Manhattan Records ■ 50999 5 824111 1 9

Released June 10, 2008

Produced and Mixed by Tony Visconti
Engineered by Mario McNulty
Assistant Engineering by Tim Price
Mastered by George Marino


Side One: Side Two:
  1. Always a Friend
  2. Chelsea Hotel ’78
  3. Sister Lost Soul
  4. Smoke
  1. Sensitive Boys
  2. People (We’re Only Gonna Live So Long)
  3. Golden Bear
  4. Nuns Song
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Real as an Animal
  2. Hollywood Hills
  3. Swallows of San Juan
  4. Chip n’ Tony
  1. Slow Down
  2. Falling in Love Again
  3. I Got a Right

I could completely obscure how I know the name Alejandro Escovedo, but that would really just be disingenuous, wouldn’t it? Truth be told, he does a duet with one Ryan Adams on Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac–one of my favourite records in the world–on a track called “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight”. A snide reviewer once noted that Adams’s music was inferior and a listener might be better off with Escovedo’s, seemingly unaware of this connection or, I later found out, a bit of a friendship between the two. That interview was what really pushed me to check Escovedo out for himself: in it, Adams said Escovedo shared an “outsider’s” perspective on love, being less defined by it than most and thus able to record it that much more acutely, in a strange way. He mentioned a song (“She Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”), referencing it as astonishingly sad and evocative emotionally–which was something that appealed to me a lot in Adams’s stuff, particularly that which he did with Whiskeytown.¹

I was out on a business trip in Iowa and Nebraska, which meant a lot of trips to the record stores in Omaha, where I found quite a few things of interest (to the point that I started to stress the space I’d quite deliberately left in my luggage for music to come back with me). One of those “things” was Real Animal: Escovedo’s third-to-last album at the time (back in June this year), on sale and predating the CD I’d picked up just previously but not much listened to (2010’s Street Songs of Love).
Between his appearance in Whiskeytown and his solo-named recordings (though he apparently also works in and “as” a few bands like Buick Mackane and Rank and File, as well as being in other bands over the years), I already had an itchy feeling this was an artist who would appeal to my father (who provided me with my first Whiskeytown album), and the fact that he’s from Texas–like my father–just furthers the notion. Even if he is associated most with Austin, the most atypical of Texas cities. Listening to the record (and being pushed by it into finally giving Street Songs of Love some spins), I’m still left pretty strongly with that impression–though there’s plenty of chance that he already knows him.
Anyway, the record starts with a nice rocker of a track, and possibly (maybe) my favourite on the whole record: “Always a Friend”. It’s a stuttering, staccato, jerky but warmly toned lone guitar that is suddenly embraced by the much softer tones (but voluminous and bright) of a string section and the rest of Escovedo’s band. “Wasn’t I always a friend to you?” Escovedo asks, then repeats it, his voice rising on the last two words this time. It’s a some what self-deprecating character: “I don’t care if I’m not your only one/What I see in you, you see in me/But if I do you wrong/Smoke my smokes/Drink my wine/Bury my snakeskin boots somewhere I’ll never find”–the list comes out a capella and half-spoken, before the punchline comes, emphatic and frank: “Still be your lover, baby!” It’s not that he seems to shrug at these things, or plead, or anything so much as state the facts of his case: she can do wrong, so can he, it doesn’t matter. In the end, it’s the two of them, no matter what. A bit more realistic, perhaps, than most works that operate on that notion, and a damn fine song for that fact.
Escovedo begins to touch on his punk history (he was in the Nuns, one of the bands that opened for the Sex Pistols’ final show) with “Chelsea Hotel ’78”–in which he indeed lived at the time. He ties it, of course, to fellow occupants of that hotel, most especially the most famous of the time: Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. Throbbing riffs sit uneasily beneath his descriptions of a near-mythological time and place, until they culiminate in a half-shouted chorus shot through with the sound of hands thrown into the air–“And it makes no sense/And it makes perfect sense…” He has probably tied bits and pieces of that time together in ways that don’t match reality, but that is only that much more sense (ahem) considering the song’s overall tenor.

Finally dropping the mood if not the tempo, “Sister Lost Soul” is another excellent run: a very 60’s intro of pounding drums punctuated with an emphatic and loud snare hit that is let ring and echo for just a moment gives way to a much less dramatic and loud set of verses. Escovedo’s voice is calm and easy, describing the world in dark but fatalistic terms: “Nobody left unbroken/Nobody left unscarred/Nobody here is talking/That’s just the way things are.” He manages to sneak in one of my favourite images ever, too: “And all the neon light reflecting off the sidewalk,” before closing it with the line that defines the need for the song’s pleading chorus: “Only reminds me you’re not coming home.” In contrast to the raw confusion and chaos of the prior track, the pleas of the chorus stretch and wave across Escovedo’s voice: “Sister lost soul/Brother lost soul/I need you…” the economy of syllables letting that much more emphasis rest on each.

Apparently uninterested in letting an album that references his past slow down too much, “Smoke” is another chunk of rawness, riffing, and steady up-tempo drums. A blazing guitar lead winds its way across the top, riding high on bends and little twists and turns of the primary riffs and melody that are cool and familiar in that purely “rock” sort of sense. Susan Voelz contributes her violin to the track in a way that seems to glue the guitar to the rest of the track that much more perfectly, be it the lead or rhythm. They blend and blur around each other, following in such a way that uncareful listening can easily lead to the conclusion the violin is just a strange sound of playing from the guitar.

The second side of the record finally drops not just the mood but the tempo–perhaps logically, with a title like “Sensitive Boys”. Hector Munoz’s drumming doesn’t really shift into light playing, just lighter–there’s no betrayal of the record’s rock leanings here. The tenor of the song is fascinating: it’s a mix of poking fun at the excesses of the “sensitive boys”, pining for their return, and just a touch of nostalgia given away when “they” becomes “we”. There’s a nice, appropriately quiet wash of noise when he sings, “Turn your amps up loud”, conveying the idea without overtaking the song, and managing to weave it in correctly. One of the most full instrumental sections on the record, the arranged strings dart in lightly here and there, and an organ-styled keyboard underpins it all with sustained chords. Brad Grable contributes his only sax tracks, with both a baritone and a tenor, taking on a solo to follow the relaxed but confident guitar one. It’s breezy, reminiscent of both rock balladry usage and the romantic kind–but not in that uncomfortably saccharine style, which may be where the song most benefits from its unusual tone.

“People (We’re Only Gonna Live So Long)” has a great swinging gait: Munoz’s drums groove and rock back and forth, while Voelz’s violin draws the low-slung lines connecting the beats, guitars traveling in jagged zigs along that same line. The whole track nearly stops for the chorus’s final repetition of “We’re only gonna live…” to let Alejandro clarify: “We’ve still got time…/But never quite as much as we think”. It’s not a warning, though, so much as paean to people in general, which he finally states at the end, giving a small list of types of people that the track fades out on, mentioning that he loves them.

Producer Visconti brings back the synthetic strings he previously used in David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” in “Golden Bear”–that slight warble of high-pitched faux-strings, though with a much less central place in the track. Where in that track it established itself immediately as an auditory focal point, here it is just an accent on the more “standard band” framework of the track, though guitars are split between palm-muted and tightly played notes and sweeping pedal-reverbed open chords allowed to ring. The tightened corners of the verse are let slip completely for a cavernous unanswered question of a chorus: in the background, the rest of the group sings “Golden bear is burning down” in a crowded muddle that doesn’t emphasize the words and instead forms a bed for Escovedo’s drawn out rhetorical question: “Oh…why me?”

If you’ve been paying attention, the reason “Nuns Song” is titled what it is should be no surprise–and no, it does not have to do with the kind of habits that go on heads. The intro is spare and sharpened: pounding, barely restrained drums and tightly wound guitar repeating as Escovedo sings in his past: “We don’t want your approval/It’s 1978/We know we’re not in tune/We know we’ll never be great…” A few more lines and that great call: “Kill it!” Alejandro yells, not to be heard enunciating by listeners, but to kick the band into gear–hey, even if the vocals were recorded last, doesn’t matter–and the restraints drop, Munoz pounding and then running across the toms to open the band, guitars wailing, background vocals more literally doing the same as they rip into the chorus. Now coiled again, the band is still more complete with strong violin laid across the top, lightly tapping keyboard lines (from Visconti, this time) and more present bass. When the chorus opens up again, it doesn’t have that great kick into gear, but a different kind, as it gives way to a buzzing and wild guitar solo. Much like “Chelsea Hotel 78”, the final portion of the track is chaotic lyrically, vaguely bizarre, but evocative–and backed by a searing, seemingly uncontrolled guitar solo that is eerie, unexpected, and yet entirely right.

The album doesn’t quite have a title track, but “Real as an Animal” is pretty damned close. A Stooge-like pounding, rocking intro doesn’t really lose its energy when the chorus hits, Munoz pounding on skins like an animal (perhaps even like Animal, now that I think about it…). Were it not for the more Americana-inflections of the chorus, this could easily have been a well-produced proto-punk style track. The chunky riffs and melodic rises are highly reminisicent, but that chorus (“La la la la yeah, animal…”) and its backed vocals give away the secret. Escovedo wrestles even the chorus back almost, though: he sidles the melodic vocals most of it uses into shouts of the song’s title, punctuated and clearly delineated words–“Real. As. An. A-ni-mal,” repeated as if a mantra to let his punk past restake its claim on the song.

Quite unexpectedly, “Hollywood Hills” has an intro of nothing but arranged strings that contrast fully with that previous track’s sonic struggle. When Escovedo enters, it’s only with clean guitars, and mostly solo strings. More strings join these sounds and make way for the chorus, which seems designed to fill out the song with grand declarations and the movement of a moment a chorus of voices would join: “Happiness can’t be bought or sold/You shared what you had/But you gave me your love…” It’s the kind of (rather mild, to be fair) crescendo that doesn’t betray the acoustic inflections of the track, but builds it up despite that. Somewhat naturally, it closes with just Alejandro and guitar again, fading naturally with quieter singing and playing, with a thoughtfully placed keyboard chord lightly dropped at the end as punctuation.

“Swallows of San Juan” opens with its chorus, and neatly defines not only the lyrical content but the song’s own feeling with its final lines: “Like the swallows of San Juan/I’m gonna get back…someday.” That present nostalgia, the kind of distant declaration that has only emotional weight behind it, no plans or clear intentions to arrive at it. While “Hollywood Hills” is more delicate, “Swallows” may be lighter, with its sustained keyboards and strings, an easy, tired gait–that wistful look backward that is backed by the conviction of nostalgia and real desire to return.

Semi-rockabilly drum pounding gives away the feel of “Chip n’ Tony”, which saws back and forth across the 1&2 3&4 thumps of Munoz’s drums. Even where the guitars fade back to make room for Escovedo’s voice, Munoz is relentless, giving the tracks just a little tinge of that Bo Diddley gait without really quite reaching it. It’s the kind of track that calls out for hand claps in its way, but smartly avoids them in this particular recording–it would have cut through the aggression of the track inappropriately, as the approach of this band and Alejandro’s voice already slices off just the right sliver of aggression to keep it friendly, and anything more would drop it into the wrong place.

“Slow Down” does exactly that: one of the handful of downtempo tracks, it’s quavering guitars and languorous pacing. Plucked strings tinge it with something brighter than the down-trodden tone of Escovedo’s singing. It’s the culmination of everything from before: “”Slow down, slow down/It’s moving much too fast/I can’t live in this moment/When I’m tangled in the past”. All the recitations of memories past, of life lessons and influences we’ve been played on the prior three sides are all the tangles of life Escovedo himself is reliving and reciting, trying to find his way to the present–a present that, in fact, was something new, in its way, to him. Not long before this, after all, he’d been ill enough hepatitis-C (incurring even a tribute album to cover medical expenses) to leave the present and future a question. All of this makes it the perfectly logical conclusion to the album–which it is, on compact disc and most digital formats.

However, exclusive to the vinyl, we have “Falling in Love Again”, a quietly romantic song, with flecks of passion infused into it. It’s an interesting and appropriate coda to the record, as if it is the epilogue announcing and explaining the search for the present and finding a place in it, maybe even a momentary cause for sifting through the past for the moments that are held and retained. It’s one of the more unique vinyl bonus tracks, in that it is simply not to be found in any other format I’ve ever seen–no compilations, singles, promos, digital releases [unfortunately for more portable formats, there’s not even a digital download included with this record] or anything, it’s only here.

More appropriate as “bonus” and “exclusive”, we close out side four with a cover of Iggy/The Stooges’ “I Got a Right”. It’s one of those historically muddled tracks, as the career of Iggy goes–the Stooges were recently dissolved, his drug addictions were short-circuiting his career, and he hadn’t yet left with Bowie to record his breakout solo records (most famously, I suppose, Lust for Life) when it was released, but it had been recorded years earlier anyway, and was one of many stop-gap releases attempting to keep his reputation (and sales…) alive. It was originally credited to “Iggy Pop and James Williamson”, the latter being the latter-day Stooges guitarist who entered after 1970’s Fun House, pushing former guitarist Ron Asheton to bass, and who then came to define much of 1973’s Raw Power guitar sound (the record being originally produced by David Bowie). As such, it may be the perfect choice to follow discussions of the past and their interminglings with the future, by revisiting the time more completely in covering a song from the early 70s, though one released near the end of that decade. Escovedo and crew do it serious credit, with Alejandro straining his voice to reach the snarling sneer of Pop while not giving up his own identity, and Visconti’s strings (!) enhancing the track in an unexpected way for such a raucous classic.

Other than my brief “cameo” introduction, this was my first experience of Escovedo–certainly, then, my first experience of him as solo artist. I’ve begun to gather many more releases in the time since then, including Bloodshot Records’ release of A Man Under the Influence: Deluxe Bourbonitis Edition, which has a number of compilation and EP tracks attached in a similar fashion to those attached here, but does make them available for download (or at least, four years after release, did so for me after a quick e-mail–a service that renders me grateful and interested in dropping that little plug!). I’ve found myself revisiting a number of tracks from this release in the near-month since I first started writing this entry, before being delayed and distracted by work and the social attachments that come with it. I am definitely glad to have made this trip, and for the number of re-listens that drawn out writing time has given it. This is a damn fine rock record, which I heartily recommend checking out.

¹That interview, which is with both artists, is here on No Depression’s site (of course), from right around the release of Strangers Almanac, which, incidentally, I gushed over at my old blog. It has gotten interesting attention–the author of a DRA biography commented on it and has linked to it (!), and Caitlin Cary herself found it apparently rather flattering and invigorating, it seems (if, apparently, deceptive in its impression that they had carefully plotted the album or anything like that).

Drive-By Truckers – Go-Go Boots (2011)

ATO Records ■ ATO 0093
Released February 15, 2011

Produced, Engineered, and Mixed by David Barbe
Mastered by Greg Calbi


Side One: Side Two:
  1. I Do Believe
  2. Go-Go Boots
  3. Dancin’ Ricky
  4. Cartoon Gold
  1. Ray’s Automatic Weapon
  2. Everybody Needs Love
  3. Assholes
  4. The Weakest Man
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Used to Be a Cop
  2. I Hear You Hummin’
  3. The Fireplace Poker
  1. Where’s Eddie
  2. The Thanksgiving Filter
  3. Pulaski
  4. Mercy Buckets

I came in to the Drive-By Truckers at a curious time: I was still working at Borders, and participated in the (extremely limited–about five stores) testing for vinyl sales. It was around 2008-2009, and the selection was largely limited, leaving me unsure of what actually led to titles appearing there. Certainly, it was a store in the Southeast (although a unique town within the state and region), and the Truckers do not suffer the absence of a following there. It did lead to my very mild introduction to Ryan Adams, which has served me well, though I didn’t actually do anything with it for years. I saw our copy of DBT’s 2008 album Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. The art by Wes Freed was intriguing, and the title, too–I was reluctant, as I was still overcoming a lot of my resistance to “twang” in music, and the band’s name was a dead giveaway for containing just that. At some point, I gave in and did pick up a CD copy of that same album, and found myself falling for it rapidly.

It wasn’t long before I was going to see the band and buy all their albums–indeed, in 2010 I saw them play two shows on two concurrent nights, which was quite an experience. But the curious time is something that involves knowing about the band’s history–initially responsible for a pair of interesting but often thought to be somewhat “slight” early albums (Gangstabilly and Pizza Deliverance), they really broke through and into their own with 2001’s Southern Rock Opera, which addressed some of the issues that would in some way typify the band as both people and a musical entity–the “holy three” of frontman Patterson Hood’s childhood in Alabama: football, via Bear Bryant, race politics in George Wallace, and music in Lynyrd Skynyrd. Some overlap, some confusion, some mixed signals and messages, all adding up to “the duality of the Southern Thing” as Hood wrote on that album. After its release, Jason Isbell joined the band and they released their most acclaimed pair of albums: 2003’s Decoration Day and 2004’s The Dirty South. To this day, many clamour for Isbell (now solo and successful at it, as I will prove here later on) to rejoin, even if only in brief or for a tour, or what have you, but he left after A Blessing and a Curse in 2006–and that’s where 2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark came in.
I joined the DBT bandwagon after their heyday, completely unbeknownst to me.

The odd thing about it, though, is that it has given me a differing perspective on their career. I appreciate the post-Isbell period because I didn’t know there was that component “missing”–I’ve gone back since then (with my now complete Isbell solo set, of course) and understand what people mean, but I have no issues at all with the Hood/Cooley/Tucker set-up, though one wonders what will come from the now sans-Tucker version.

So, for the purposes of this particular album, the band is composed of: Mike Cooley, Jay Gonzalez, Patterson Hood, Brad Morgan, John Neff (who once played for The Two Dollar Pistols), and Shonna Tucker. This is the same band that recorded 2010’s The Big To-Do, which should come as no surprise, considering the two were recorded simultaneously and separated into their respective albums as the first was developed. It comes off something like the Dave Gregory-exit-inducing last two albums from XTC–Apple Venus and Wasp Star–in that one album is composed of the rockers and one of the more relaxed songs, though they released theirs in the opposite order. Go-Go Boots is the lighter of the two albums, containing nothing along the lines of “This Fuckin’ Job” and its uneasy but intensely crunchy, rocking mixture of frustrated anger and despair or “Birthday Boy” and its fumble of shame and stripper’s attempts to comfort set to a solid roar of distortion, though the overall content does have some similarities.

It was only appropriate that I chose the time I did to revisit the record–the time of day, I mean, not the time of year, or time in my life. It’s an album that glows warmly (musically, anyway) like a setting sun. That could be my own preferences inserting themselves of course–though I also like a good rainy album, or a night-time one. Still, the acoustic orientations and the laidback tones and tempos lend themselves to an association with that time of day that many have made in the past on the same grounds, even if not necessarily with this very album.

I think it may be how the stage is set with “I Do Believe”, a song Patterson Hood wrote about his grandmother, starting the album with the a cappella refrain of the song’s title, “I do believe, I do believe, I saw you standing there, sunlight in your hair, reflecting in your eyes…” with only a few light hits at the hi-hat from Brad Morgan to hint at the coming sounds. A sweet roll of bass and friendly guitars follows in on Morgan’s expanded beat and a hint of shaker percussion. It should be out of place here–songs follow about murder, heartbreak, self-recrimination, finding the place to hide from family…but it isn’t. It’s an interesting choice, because often the ray of sunshine is dropped at the end of a dark album, so as to relieve whatever weight has been pressed down in the preceding moments. It works even better here, though, as it puts you in a happier place to hear what follows, to shine through the darkness that follows. The two-three..four beat from Brad and the low-jangle of guitars is ideal here, like a breezy trip with the top down (in a Mustang perhaps–just as Hood describes his grandmother, and Wes Freed illustrated her) into a sunset.

The tempo drops to a slow roast for the first of two versions of a real murder that occurred twenty years ago in Hood’s hometown–the title track. It’s a perfect example of one half of Hood’s specialties: the storyteller half. Guitar wails from Neff’s slide, as Shonna’s bass and Morgan’s drums lay down a hardened rhythm. Hood’s voice sways with the beat, and the whole song sounds like the forbidden excitement of the hidden affair that he portrays as partly prompting the sordid, ahem, affair. It’s sleazy and uncomfortable, even as you can hear the shaking head and sigh of Hood as he recounts the tale, not unlike one that made it onto the companion album (“The Wig He Made Her Wear” on The Big To Do, about a vaguely similar, also real murder). This song, though, is just that much more off in that direction, as the whole band is in that sleaze mode, where it was only Neff on the other track. His slide here is just…raunchy. The way the whole thing drips with the fascination/horror with the whole thing is simply perfect in execution.

Shonna was in the band for a few albums before she contributed a full song, her first appearances being “I’m Sorry Huston”, “Home Field Advantage”, and “The Purgatory Line” on Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. She threw a few on The Big To Do (namely “You Got Another” and “(It’s Gonna Be) I Told You So”), and “Dancin’ Ricky” is her first appearance on her last album with the band. It’s in keeping with the tracks she brought to the other chunks of the sessions that spawned them (the ones on The Big To Do, that is), being less interested in the verbosity that Patterson in particular tends toward, as well as the smirking wit of Cooley’s contributions. It’s a soul-leaning pop track–in a good sense, if that needs to be stated–and it acts as showcase for some really great organ work from Jay Gonzalez on a B3, some nice little fret slides, and even producer (producer of most of DBT’s output, actually) and ex-Mercyland member¹ David Barbe’s chance to throw bass on a track, what with Shonna covering piano and all.

John Neff whips out the dobro while Morgan mans a bass and snare rim sort of barebones drumbeat for the wiggled eyebrow of Mike Cooley’s first lead vocal, “Cartoon Gold”. He pulls out the banjo Patterson has said he plays in a very specific way, as well as Hood’s favourite line on the album–something he says Cooley is often responsible for, a statement much of their fanbase would agree to. He has a knack for a distinctly different approach that covers ground Hood doesn’t; his play on words is at least worthy of a smile (or, more likely, smirk), if not a chuckle or laugh, but he generally sings it totally straight and shoots a line of emotional truth straight through the whole thing anyway to justify that. “I’m not good with numbers/I just count on knowing when I’m high enough…” he starts, and already the man’s way with words is just fantastic. The sense of humour about less-than-positive emotions is like he describes himself at the song’s end: “Sitting in a bar in LA after dark with my sunglasses on”–a drinker slumped not out of inebriation, nor absolute despondent sorrow, but a mood best described as “Well, shit.” I think that kind of sums up the tone of the song, if not its content, in fact–it’s ponderings about the past that don’t seem to add up to much of value for the one pondering, but with a bit of advice for listeners hiding in it anyway–be it good or bad advice.

Side One ends with the heavy piano and sharpened points of guitar of “Ray’s Automatic Weapon”, the story of a man who was passed a heavy automatic rifle a friend (Ray, of course) had made him wary of. He finds himself bored and shooting it, only to one day realize he’s testing how close he can shoot at real people in the distance. It’s a funny story because it goes no further–though there’s all kinds of darkness hiding behind it–the friend is a veteran, who was worried about Ray for the very reasons he himself is now finding himself doing almost-horrific things. The song is slow and plunks itself down with Gonzalez’s deep, low hammering at the keys, Neff’s lap steel squealing out a texture of distant loss of control. Hood’s voice is confessional, but not secretive–quiet but not at all whispered. It’s dashed with both self-recognition of horrific echoes and nonchalance at serious things–which carries its own sense of horror.

The Truckers don’t often include covers on their albums–indeed, excluding a compilation of rarities, they hadn’t done it until this album was released², with this next track being the first: Eddie Hinton’s “Everybody Needs Love”. It was actually initially released on a 7″ (Dangerous Highway – A Tribute To The Songs Of Eddie Hinton Vol. 2–which I, myself, own) with their other cover of one of his songs, “Where’s Eddie?” which appears later on this album. They apparently did so thanks to their pride in the work on both, and that pride is justifiable. Neff is back at the dobro, and there’s a kind of extra-clear recording and production (a hint of echo, and the lightest crackle of perhaps homage-induced anachronistic high-end thinness) on Patterson’s voice. The song slumps a bit, bright with its overall message, but aching with the knowledge of absence–“I used to go around saying I didn’t need nobody/To be happy and belong/Then one sad day I found myself in trouble/Way down, without a friend/Along came the love of a real good woman/Said she’d love me ’til the end…” It’s like a shot of hope, tinged with melancholic doubt, cracking across the surface of it. Truly a great recording, this one.

While Patterson has said they “shouldn’t talk about” “Assholes”, it’s not much to guess who and what it’s directed at–the band switched labels for this pair of records, and the last two for their prior label are a live album and a compilation, usually a dead giveaway for contract fulfillment. It’s driven home more clearly by lines like “And you sicked your lawyers on me/Told them to go for the throat/And you just sat back and watched them/Have a go/And you say that we’re the assholes/’Cause we bitched about the hassles/While you’re sleeping in your castles/And we’re still riding down the road…” Of course, it could be management, or any variety of people–but the context leans one way to my ears. Cooley mans the banjo again, and gives a sort of pokey feeling to the song, which is amusing considering the title, the profane choice of label both appropriate in visceral reaction and funny for its intensity in the music’s context. It’s a shrugging anger, though–whatever rage Hood may have felt (or may still feel) is either filtered or tempered, and it makes for an unusual song about the topic, as compared to some that have come out (like, say, Trent Reznor’s run at TVT with Broken…)

There are clear threads back to older country in the basically simple set-up of “The Weakest Man”, Cooley’s second shot at the record, which maintains the attitude that runs through a lot of his songs, that sense of wry amusement at the world, as a means of dealing with the worst parts of it. The chorus is a one-two punch–the first at the woman he’s leaving, the second at himself: “Leaving you won’t be any harder/Than walkin’ out the door and leavin’ town/But I’ll be leavin’ knowing surving you don’t make me stronger/Than the weakest man who’s ever turned you down…”  It’s also a good showcase for The Bottom Feeders, the backup vocalists who work with the group on the record. Well, they are the group, but it’s a good name for a made-up backing group all the same, and they fit in perfectly on the track.

The absolute winner of the album–sorry to call it so early!–is doubtless “Used to Be a Cop”. I first heard the song at that pair of shows I mentioned–I’d only just picked up their earlier records, so I immediately scoured them for this brilliant track, only to discover it was actually from an upcoming album instead. The studio recording was no kind of disappointment. Where “Go-Go Boots” was a slow burn of sleaze and murder, “Used to Be a Cop” rides Shonna Tucker’s sliding thump of a bassline and the ringing guitars that announce the chorus (of a kind) through a simmering shudder of discomforting stalker-y sociopathy. Another in the great tradition of stalker songs, I suppose! It’s a hefty track, which has a lovely bridge that shines with the past glories of our fired, divorced, short-fused protagonist, until returning to the twitching hypnosis of the bassline and slightly dissonant clang of guitars that represents the present instead.

A track available only on the vinyl version, “I Hear You Hummin'” is a veritable jam session between Neff, Gonzalez, Morgan and author and vocalist Shonna Tucker, recorded, apparently, with a single microphone and live. It’s raw and wobbly, but endearing rather than overly troubled for that fact. 

Our contract killer-hiring preacher from “Go-Go Boots” returns in “The Fireplace Poker”, and it’s now enough of a different take to seem as though it’s just a shamefully similar true story of woe instead of the same one. It’s Hood in a rocking chair at a fireplace telling the story with that same shaking head and sigh of bewildered amazement–and quietly morbid fascination. Gonzalez drops a rather simple but poignant set of piano keys on the latter half of the track, delightful in their contrast and simplicity around the thumping constancy of Brad Morgan’s drumming.

“Where’s Eddie?” is the Eddie Hinton/Donnie Fritz song the band released with “Everybody Needs Love” as a b-side before the album came out, and it’s sung–as intended, gender-wise–by Shonna Tucker, who pours the full extent of her voice into it, stretching it much further than she usually aims to with her own songs–it’s a country-tinged soul track, melodramatic in its questioning sorrow, but in the best and most appropriate ways–though this partly reflects its age rather clearly, as it was first released as a single by Scottish singer Lulu in 1970.

The band’s single for the album (backed with “Used to Be a Cop”) is a forward-leaning one, on edge and relaxed simultaneously as Patterson describes with both weariness and tension the scene of his family at Thanksgiving–conflicting politics, strange habits and personalities, age differences and everything else that comes with most large gatherings of people. He describes a family member’s project (“Poppa” could be his own father, Muscle Shoals bassist David Hood, or it could be his grandfather–familial usage of that title tends to vary) that “will never be finished” but Hood guesses “that’s the point” because it “Gives him a filter and psychological ointment”. Patterson has said that the filter, for him, is actually songwriting–a method of hiding in plain sight from family, as means of dealing with it. It’s a more sane middle step between the saccharine imaginings of large family gatherings, and the hysterically exaggerated negatives of stand up comedy and movie scenes about them. It does have a great kicker of a final verse line, too–“You wonder why I drink and curse the holidays/Blessed be my family 300 miles away…”

Cooley admitted frankly that “Pulaski” was named simply because he’d been through the town (once) and its syllables, particularly in unison with its containing state, Tennessee, fit perfectly with the song (unlike his own hometown or homestate). It shuffles along on another easy, brushy beat from Brad, and is smaller and more intimate–as is often the case in this contrast–than Hood’s prior one. It has the love for “not even ‘Southern’–American small towns” Cooley occasionally shows–a sense of pride in those small ones and their atmospheres. Of course, it’s not so silly as to pretend the protagonist’s move to California proves the complete inferiority of anywhere else, so much as pointing out that people are often neither better nor worse in that shift, and fantastic representations–as those on T.V.–are just that.

“Mercy Buckets” is, naturally, a play on “merci beaucoup”, the French for “thank you very much”. It’s about as wild as the album gets, Cooley and Neff trading leads, and doubtless a few from Hood in there, too. It’s the final show-stopper, sad, dragging in tempo, but big, expansive, dramatic, and generally huge–cinematic, as the band likes to think of themselves. Each syllable of Hood’s chorus is emphasize: “I will bring you buckets of mercy”, and there’s no question that the scorching peals of guitar are the right way to end the album. Not with some kind of inappropriate huge block of rocking bang, but with the rather slow-moving force of fireworks exploding in a night sky, shooting up on those streaks of lead guitar, but slowing at their explosion and slowly flittering back downward. It’s a release of energy matching what came before instead of entirely defying it.

I was perusing record stores in another state recently on a business trip, and had occasion to speak to the proprietor of one of those stores. We talked a bit about music, particularly the new Jason Isbell which had just been released, and conversation naturally wandered to the Truckers. We agreed there was a bit of searching for either after their split (though I think he meant Creation’s Dark where I meant A Blessing and a Curse, on which Jason did, in fact, play, but released some of his lesser songs with the band), but that both had clearly found their stride by now–indeed, this pair of albums is extraordinarily successful at clarifying what this band is after their rise carrying Isbell and now as the band that they are, the one more exclusively defined by Cooley and Hood, who’ve been together more than two and a half decades now.

I can understand the trepidation some no doubt feel with a band with this name, or an album or cover art like this–I still get those feelings sometimes, much though I now try to subdue them. I can only suggest what I try myself–sample it out. There are some great performances from the band floating around the net, plenty even official. And if you’re really adventurous, Cooley is touring solo, and the band will probably be back on the road together before too long. Give them a shot if you haven’t, though. They may be unabashed in their northern Alabama roots, but that tells you less about them than you might think.

¹I actually just picked up the random compilation of their work, but that’s a pretty meaningless reference except to Athens, GA locals, so far as I know. Still, it was a cool band from what I’ve now heard.

²That said, they covered one of my favourite Warren Zevon tracks (“Play It All Night Long”), though I honestly thought they didn’t quite manage it properly. They did, however, blow the Tom Petty song “Rebels” out of the water on that record (The Fine Print), and contribute one of the better “Like a Rolling Stone” covers out there, and Tom T. Hall’s “Mama Bake a Pie (Daddy Kill a Chicken)”, which I’ve never heard the original track to. Hood did cover yet another semi-obscure favourite of mine, Todd Rundgren’s “Range War” on his second solo album–which makes sense. It was on Todd’s second album, too. I mean, if you count Runt as a solo record, which plenty of people (justifiably) do. Including me.