No band communicates the odd little bit of culture that has crawled out of the muck to become the New New South quite like the Drive-By Truckers. Their spin on Southern Rock and Alternative County never feels artificial or tacked on, and a genuine respect, for the often difficult lives of people mired in poverty and a past they can't escape, permeates the music. The band understands that while three guitars rock, they don't bring soul to the music just as they understand that trucks, guns, and trailers may exist in the South, but they don't lend identity or character to its people. With their latest offering, A Blessing and a Curse, DBT proves yet again that Southern Rock is still alive and kicking and that it means an awful lot to an awful lot of people.
Drive-By Truckers has developed something of a cycle in the way their records are released. With Southern Rock Opera, the band cobbled together a lengthy masterwork that told a story without the pretension of a typical concept album. They followed it up with Decoration Day, a much shorter collection of vignettes. The songs on that album were connected by their spirit rather than any sort of narrative, but remained much more individual in their execution. A Blessing and a Curse, then, is the expectedly more concise follow-up to 2004's sprawling, The Dirty South. Running a brief forty-five minutes or so, ABaaC is practically an EP for DBT, but the album doesn't lack for feeling, songwriting and, of course, some killer guitar.
"Feb. 14", with thumping bass drum and a message of shattered relationships starts things off like Fourth of July fireworks. Patterson Hood's trademark vocal whine expresses true sadness and has come to be the most well-known sound of the band, despite the fact that the band has two other excellent singers. Each of those singers gets a shot on the next two songs, Mike Cooley on "Gravity's Gone" with its hilarious portrayal of LA schmoozing, and Jason Isbell on "Easy on Yourself" a melodic rocker with little Southern sound at all, besides Isbell's unselfconscious accent. Hood's vocals dominate most of the record, though, and David Barbe's production balances his rough melancholy with the complex instrumentation behind it. As usual, everything works and sounds like it's just where it's supposed to be. Solid back beats and well-placed, interlocked guitars rule the day, but on occasion the band slips into darker, less melodic territory, as on the title track. "Goodbye" has a nice slow build to it, and "A World of Hurt" features slow slide and spoken vocal asides courtesy of Hood.
The strength of Drive-By Truckers is rooted in the exceptional and deep songwriting that informs each of their records. Even if DBT was an acoustic folk act, this band would sell records simply based on the beautifully written songs packed into each album like Nilla wafers in banana pudding (you southern folks'll get that one, I guess). "Little Bonnie" tells the plaintive story of a lost child with such detail and honesty, it may have even the most hardened Molly Hatchet fan reaching for the Kleenex. "Space City" is another tear-jerker that acts as almost a sequel or prequel to "Puttin People on the Moon" from The Dirty South. Sadness and woe aren't the only dishes on the table, however. "Aftermath USA" rollicks along with a tale of a party and a life gone wrong, and "Daylight", the other Isbell belted tune, sounds hopeful in the face of darkness. Even some of the sad songs have a touch of defiance, like "Wednesday." They just have certain disillusioned-and-loving-it style. You can only get lines like, "They say every man's house should be his palace/ but his castle stank of cat shit and alone," from the Drive-By Truckers.
The Drive-By Truckers have, at various times, been lauded and vilified by critics. Whether they're the next big thing, or a cut-rate bar band that can't write a song with a chorus, they have persisted with their vision of a band that is, at once, important and meaningful and, at the same time, a hell of a lot of fun. You probably have to be from the South to fully appreciate DBT. Too much of the essence of Alabama and its neighbors is tied up in the lyrics and in the very sound itself. The wistful but driving guitars, the drawl in the words, it all speaks to Southerners particularly. For anyone, anywhere, though, this three-guitar army rocks like few other acts out there. Imagine the best elements of Uncle Tupelo and Lynyrd Skynyrd distilled into a nice mason jar of Rock and Roll. Pass it on around.