13 February 2011

2010: Drive-By Truckers, Dum Dum Girls

Drive-By Truckers
The Big To-Do

Released March 16, 2010 (ATO)

Short Notes: Great band continues its streak of decent but inconsistent albums larded with the odd magical track.

Brandon: B
Lin and I are old Truckers fans from way back, courtesy of of our old buddy Andre, who, so the story goes, pulled their 2001 double album Southern Rock Opera out of a cd rack at random because “the album art looked pretty cool.” Since that lucky afternoon, the both of us have lived and died by the songs of Patterson, Mike, Jason (on to solo work), Shonna, and the rest of the boys.

At their best, the DBTs are a pot distilled version of the best attributes of American rock and roll--clever, affecting storytelling about individual lives married to a southern chug propelled by three guitars and a lock-down rhythm section. Their best work tells stories like early Springsteen, only more personal, if it’s possible, wrapped up in southern gothic symbolism and drenched in sweet guitar solos. But like most rock bands, the DBTs have also gotten more inconsistent in their old age--this is, after all, their eighth official studio record, and Mike and Patterson have been playing together since the 80s.

Their middle records--the aforementioned Southern Rock Opera, Decoration Day, and The Dirty South--were all released between 2001 and 2004, and all benefited not only from strong secondary material from lead guitarist Mike Cooley (who has the best nickname in rock these days--the “Stroker Ace,” after a truly terrible Burt Reynolds stock-car racing movie from ‘81) and (in the latter two cases) Jason Isbell, but also from presumptive frontman Patterson Hood’s strongest work. Hood is the heart and soul of the band, his nasaly yelp and charisma are front and center at every show, and he’s the most recognizable member. But as good as he can be, his batting average as a songwriter is also the lowest among the band’s regular contributors. So when the newest record includes 8 of his originals of 13, sadly, this suggests a few slower duds among the highpoints.

To concur (in advance) with Lin, there are a few songs here that count among the finest work the band’s ever produced, making this album a totally respectable starting place for new fans. Cooley’s “Birthday Boy,” sung from the perspective of a young stripper/prostitute, is probably one of the best songs of 2010, and among their finest tracks as a band. And as Lin describes below, the front half of the record is chock-full of new Truckers classics--songs in the old vein they’ve mined so well over the years, about drinking and death in the new recessionary America. As for the weaker tracks that make up side two (although “This Fucking Job” is one of the better non-hip-hop songs about the structural impoverishment of America, and their video for it is nothing short of amazing), well, let’s just say that the Truckers are ripe for a self-mixed best of. I wish this record was solid top to bottom, but for a favorite band still releasing good music, I hate to be too critical.

Lin: B

For as much as I love the DBTs -- I count them as one of my favorite active bands -- they've yet to release a truly great album. Perhaps it's not important in the iTunes age, but even their best album (Southern Rock Opera) or my favorite (Decoration Day) have filler that I always skip over. The Big To-Do is no different in this regard, but the success-to-failure ratio is lower here than on any other album with the exception of A Blessing and a Curse.

Luckily, the album is sequenced with all the best tracks up front: (1) opener "Daddy Learned to Fly" is in the same vein as the last album's "Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife"; (2) "The Fourth Night of My Drinking," which has an surprisingly appealing undercurrent of self-contempt; (3) "Birthday Boy," one of the best Trucker's tracks, ever, and (4) "Drag The Lake Charlie," a somewhat trite track but full of joyous (handclaps!!) dark humor.

After that is "The Wig He Made Her Wear," a story song that doesn't go anywhere or do anything. Then is "You Got Another," the first truly great Shonna Tucker song, very "classic country" and lovely -- but it sounds out of place on an album like this. "This Fucking Job," (or "Working This Job") a 'zeitgeist capturing' if somewhat generic recession song, rounds out the worthwhile tracks. That's nearly 27 minutes of "A" quality stuff that can sit comfortably aside their weightier material and 27 minutes of stuff that will only get a listen when I forget to switch albums half way through.

Dum Dum Girls
I Will Be

Released March 30, 2010 (Sub Pop)

Short Notes: fuzzed out, jangly guitar pop by girls proves divisive for the boys.

Lin: B

I'm already on the record for having a distaste of the now-prevalent washed-out all-middle production style. So, inside 15 seconds this album is already fighting an uphill battle. Which is disappointing as, just like the Best Coast album, it'd be fairly enjoyable (if mostly unspectacular) garage-pop if it was more sonically diverse. "Jail La La" and "Yours Alone" being the highlights and the closest tracks to overcoming the production -- as it's the ballads like "Blank Girl" that suffer the most. If you don't share my hang ups and/or like the Best Coast album, feel free to consider this a recommendation and a pleasant way to kill half an hour.

Brandon: A-

As is probably pretty obvious by now, Lin and I, despite our decade long friendship based largely on a mutual affection for the same sort of pop music, have very different preferences. We converge on a few things (alternative country and gritty Americana, classic punk rock and post-punk, post-war Chicago blues, Richard Thompson), but when it comes to new indie pop, we have radically divergent preferences. For my part, I’m a classicist--drawn to guitar pop genre exercises and the weird formalities of the power pop, twee, and post-Jesus & Mary Chain/Beat Happening fuzz-pop. I came up on music like Matthew Sweet, Big Star, Material Issue, and Teenage Fanclub, and I love bands like the Vaselines, that I suspect Lin finds a bit cloying.

The Dum Dum Girls, on Sub Pop, are one of a number of new bands dedicated to reviving the Vaselines/Beat Happening/C-86 sort of take on classic pop. These groups (I’d also lump in the excellent The Pains of Being Pure at Heart as a perhaps better-known point of reference) layer fuzz over the top of Ronettes-baiting riffs, all the while singing in shaggy harmony about cute things. If this sounds like something you’d be interested in, run, don’t walk, to pick up this record. I find a lot to like here--the songwriting is far better than most of the other bands mining this same vein pull off, the music is sweetly poppy, and the whole thing sounds a fair bit more sincere than you might expect from the sort of hipsters that would try to revive the Vaselines sound in 2011. My favorite tracks--”It Only Takes One Night,” “Jail La La,” and “Yours Alone”--are all insanely catchy, not so much because they have big hooks as because of an insistent propulsion that I find incredibly endearing. Highly recommended, with the caveat that this is clearly, for lack of a better terminology, a “Brandon” record.


Lin said...

My taste does run harder than yours, for sure, but I'm becoming increasingly convinced that much of my dislike of the modern stuff lies just with the production. I like Big Star, I like Vaselines, etc. And I'd like the Best Coast and, to a lesser extent, this album, if I could just go in there and remix it.

I wonder if it's partly because I'm going deaf and I crave the extended fidelity as a counter balance.

Brandon said...

I can understand the production critique. Are you familiar with Psychocandy by The Jesus and Mary Chain? I'd identify that record as sort of the ur-statement of the fuzzy pop thing. I'd be curious to see if you like that record.

When it comes to a lot of these pop records with the odd production on which we've disagreed (Ariel Pink, even more than Best Coast), I think I'd also counter by saying that the flip side of the production you don't like is the increasingly stale and formulaic nature of the power pop community itself. I'd rather listen to Ariel Pink, which gives me fewer hooks per minute but at least sounds like it's trying to innovate, than most of the records you can get on blogs like Power Pop Overdose, which all sound the same.

In any case, my sister the audiologist would insist that I tell you to go get a hearing test. You should establish a baseline now, so that you can be fitted with better hearing aids later on.