The most important record of the year.
Drive By Truckers release their eleventh studio album, appropriately enough at a time when the US political battle lines are clearly drawn, and make no bones about exactly where they sit in the debate.
Song-writers Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley are fully prepared for the backlash that will inevitably follow from those who feel music and politics shouldn’t mix, or those who simply object to the views the album represents. Hood has described the album as “a rock and roll call to arms as well as a musical re-set button for our band” while Cooley has stated “I wanted this to be a no bones about it, in your face political album, I wanted to piss off the assholes.” It is attitudes as trenchant as this, alongside issues of race relations, gun crime and immigration addressed in songs of immense quality, that makes American Band the most important record of the year.
It may seem odd to start an album review by discussing the artwork but, as devotees of the band will know, this is the first album not to feature the distinctive Wes Freed artwork on the cover. Instead we have a photograph of the Stars and Stripes at half mast, a salient reminder of the state of the nation as viewed by Hood and Cooley. Even the album title is a defiant statement as the band strike back against those who they believe have hijacked the right to decide what it means to be American.
Drive By Truckers previous offering was English Oceans in 2014 which saw the songs shared equally between Hood and Cooley and American Band follows suit with six Patterson Hood songs and five Mike Cooley. That album was a heady mix of the social commentary, wit and political statements wrapped up in the narrative of working class lives that has traditionally been the band’s hallmark.
Both Hood and Cooley are at the top of their game on American Band with songs that are direct, contemporary and uncomfortably accurate. The album positively crackles with anger and indignation in what is a most welcome antidote to so much of the passivity that seems to have enveloped the music industry in recent years. This is political protest music with a razor-sharp edge as in Kinky Hypocrites when Cooley sings “the greatest separaters of fools from their money party harder than they’d like to admit”.
Album opener Ramon Casiano is a searing Cooley track that ponders immigration issues, not just a US concern as this summer has shown in the UK, but one that conveniently ignores the human realities behind the headlines. Darkened Flags On the Cusp of Dawn is the heaviest of Patterson Hood’s contributions, musically certainly. Now relocated from Georgia to Portland Oregon, Hood’s song-writing, always pitch-perfect, now seems to be ever more relevant, reflective and contemporary.
US gun laws are the subject of Hood song Guns of Umpqua, which focuses on the Oregon college massacre while What it Means is about the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida when an unarmed Black youth was killed by a neighbourhood watch coordinator who was later acquitted.
The theme of gun violence and racist driven killings is taken up by Cooley on Surrender Under Protest. Whilst this song outwardly focuses on the Charleston Church massacre and the subsequent controversy about the removal of the Confederate Flag from the South Carolina State House, it is also an uncomfortable examination of the “comfort zone of history”. Cooley is challenging the received wisdom about the South’s past and those “loved ones” who perpetuate myths that are causing social divisions today.
Not least of the issues addressed on the album is on the final track, Baggage, where Hood sings with brutal honesty about his struggles with depression, stirred by the suicide of Robin Williams. It’s an appropriate ending which offers some hope amidst the bleak issues the album covers.
The contribution of Jay Gonzalez keyboards to the sound is vital as is the hugely under-rated drumming of Brad Morgan. Recorded in only six days, American Band is a coruscating antidote to the apathy that seems to grip far too many bands and, at a crucial time in both American and World history, is an appropriate reminder of what rock music is about.
For more info about Drive By Truckers, visit their website
To read an interview with Mike Cooley about American Band, go here
For an interview with Patterson Hood from 2014 go here