Drive-By Truckers: English Oceans

Paul Whyte

The Drive-By Truckers, based out of Athens, GA, have been playing their special blend of alternative rock and country for 18 years now. With this tenth album, the group has shown no sign of slowing down. While the group is certainly a rock band, it’s the songwriting that truly shines. The album features the songwriting of band founders Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley in almost equal parts. It’s fair to say that this pair of musicians is in tune with each other, as there is a consistent feel throughout.
“English Oceans” captures snapshots of life in America as well as touches on political themes and acknowledges getting older. While the lyrics of the album can be a little abstract at times, each song creates imagery and a message that does make a point. The album begins with the accessible rock song “Shit Shots Count.” The sound is rounded out with a feel of country, and lyrically the songs are a little gritty and honest: “Meat’s just meat and it’s all born dying/Some is tender and some is tough/Somebody’s gotta mop up the A-1/Somebody’s gotta mop up the blood.” The horn section towards the end of the song pulls together this upbeat yet lyrically tough track.
Continuing with the grit and honesty of this album, the track “When He’s Gone” succinctly highlights a lonely woman in a joyless partnership. “She can’t stand to have him around but always misses him when he’s gone,” goes the chorus. The album often focuses on people in a moment in their lives. The track “Primer Coat” begins with lines briefly describing a middle-aged man: “The old man’s out by the swimming pool/He goes there to think/ He talks on the phone sometimes/Hardly mentions a thing/Said he needed it for his knees/He used to swim back in school/Graduated in ‘84, quit drinking in ‘92.” These stories aren’t exactly happy or sad—if anything, there’s just something real about them.
The album does have a little politics in it. Again, this album really focuses on people. The song “The Part of Him” describes a slippery politician: “He was an absolute piece off shit to tell the truth/But he never told the truth to me/He never told the truth to you, don’t think he ever set out to/He was indifferent to honesty/His positions were pre-ordained to help conceal his vast disdain for anything that lessened his appeal/His integrity was phoning in, totally Nixonian/Honing the art of making deals.” To explain the sound of this album, it’s more or less straight-up rock. There’s not a lot of flashiness. The chord progressions stay pretty simple, and there are accents such as lead guitar and keys, but it remains down to earth. To make a comparison, it carries a feel of Neil Young in how it’s straightforward yet catchy and still carries some meaning behind it lyrically.
Another character on the album is “Jimmy” in the song “Hearing Jimmy Loud.” The picture is well painted in the first lines of the song: “Trapped in a truck with Jimmy, listening to his band/Jimmy’s out of place, same as ashtrays and column shifts/Said his old lady nearly run in the ground/Half a gram later I was hearing Jimmy loud.” This track was written by Mike Cooley, but throughout the album it’s hard to tell what is a Cooley song or a Hood song. They really follow the same vibe. The two songwriters have been working together for over twenty years, and it seems that they are really on the same wavelength as far as their music goes.
While this album does offer up a good portion of rock, there are some more mellow tracks here and there. A great example is the song “Hanging On.” It is simple, humble, and beautiful. While kind of sad, it’s also hopeful. “Sometimes in the silence of the night that voice might try to tell you it’s not right/You close your eyes and try with all your might to hang on.” Its melodic and sentimental keys really drive through the feeling of this song.
The album ends low-key with the light alt-country song “First Air of Autumn,” which admits the falling apart of relationships and loss. “Memory only shows the promise beauty broke/Of beauty ageless in time/Light attracts the same, you glance away and the glory fades/And being on your arm has lost its shine.” Rather than focusing on characters, the album pulls back to personal reflection. There is acknowledgement that life isn’t perfect, but it’s necessary to be tough, and there are beautiful things in it. The final track, “Grand Canyon,” is a tribute to a friend of the band, Craig Lieske. “We drove across the desert, saw the mountain range at dawn/Heard the thunder rumbles echo against the rocks that gods were made from/We drove across the wastelands until we finally reached the sea/And I wonder how a life so sturdy could just one day cease to be,” goes a verse of the song.
“English Oceans” really pulls out a lot of this band’s experience both musically and as far as life goes. They tell stories and create a genuine listening experience that is easy to get behind. I’ve heard a few songs by Drive-By Truckers and have liked what I’ve heard in the past, but this album cuts a little deeper. I chose to review this because it was officially released just a little over a week ago, and after 18 years, this group isn’t exactly a household name, but perhaps they should be.


Paul Whyte

A South Shore native and University of Wisconsin-Superior journalism graduate. Lifelong musician, and former open mic host. Passionate about the music scene and politics.

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