Fresh off their 2008 career revitalization album Brighter Than Creation's Dark, the Drive-By Truckers are back with The Big To-Do, an album of beer-swilling classic rock that suggests everything will be OK even when the lyrics remind the opposite.
Seriously, if you ignore the lyrics, this is one shit-kicking, good-time record. Classic rock arrangements, complete with Lynyrd Skynyrd guitar solos, pop handclaps and Springsteenian keyboards explode out of the tracks, giving way to images of crowded clubs packed with sweaty, dancing people chugging Bud Light and trying their damndest to have a good time. Half the fun of The Big To-Do is getting to hear the band do its thing: There are too few rock bands left that can play this sort of music, and even fewer that can play it as well as the Drive-By Truckers.
The other half of the fun, however, is in the unfolding of lead Trucker Patterson Hood's tragic stories. Turning his focus from his own personal life (a subject he covered pretty well on Creation's Dark), Hood tells stories of a sexually abused preacher's wife ("The Wig He Made Her Wear"), a boy waiting for his "pilot" father to come home ("Daddy Learned to Fly") and a criminal who better be dead, or else ("Drag the Lake Charlie").
Like all great storytellers, the Truckers succeed in the little details. For example, the excellent "Drag the Lake Charlie" would be a sweet little pop song even without snapshots like this one: "Remember what happened last time Lester went on the make / I heard it took the cleaning crew two weeks to clean the bar / they never found that teenage girl, they never found her car." Dark touches like that one really sell the stories, make them something more than simple pop songs, something closer to actual literature, or at least one-act plays set to the best bar band you've ever heard.
As The Big To-Do unfolds, with its swelling solos and stories of tired strippers and trophy wives, it does tend to run out of steam. Out of the album's 13 tracks, the last three are the weakest. But of the other 10 tracks, no less than seven are dick-swingin', beer chuggin', life-crushingly depressing romps through lower-class America.
Indeed, this music isn't so much about location (Southern rock/Northern rock, whatever) as much as it is about the haves and the have-nots. Right now, there isn't a band alive that understands the struggles of the latter quite like the Drive-By Truckers. There isn't a band around that makes their trials sound more fun.