You notice the first difference between “American Band” and nearly every other album released by Drive-By Truckers over the past 15 years the second you look at the cover. Instead of the Southern-inspired illustrations of Wes Freed, the Truckers have opted for a Danny Clinch photo — a stark, simple outdoor shot where the barely discernible colors of an American flag fly at half staff against a desolate, wintry and predominantly black-and-white sky.
The second most telling aspect about the record surfaces when the darkened power chords of the album-opening “Ramon Casiano” hit you like a gust of arid wind — a Southern storm without the humidity, if you will. Within Mike Cooley’s story of militia turned self-appointed border patrollers, and the raging anger and paranoia fueling them, you get a very sobering picture of the troubled and very present times sitting at the heart of “American Band.”
They expand the scope of their songs to visions mightier than the more internalized suggestions of past records. In short, any veils to the unrest that co-frontmen Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley address have been lifted.
The music is all Crazy Horse-style Neil Young immediacy — electric but urgent, tight but unvarnished. But the lyrics, from first tune to last, compose an extended reality check. Forget the jingoism the title implies. “American Band” sits largely horrified at the country’s ailing divisions and turns to the same rock ‘n’ roll the Truckers have used through much of its history to derail Southern stereotypes and hypocrisies. “Everyone claims that the times are a-changing as theirs pass them by,” Cooley sings later in “Filthy and Fried.” “And everyone’s right.”
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The Truckers play with assurance throughout. Keyboardist Jay Gonzalez, in particular, takes a noticeably increased role in orchestrating the vigor within the 11 songs on “American Band” without making them seem unduly anthemic. But the intent of any Truckers album comes down to the songs of Cooley and co-frontman Patterson Hood. What they design here isn’t so much a change of narrative course or even a shift in sentiment. It’s just that they expand the scope of their songs to visions mightier that the more internalized suggestions of past records. In short, any veils to the unrest that Hood and Cooley address have been lifted.
Some protests glide by with almost poetic ease, as in Hood’s uncomfortably timely “What It Means.” The tune uses the 2014 police shootings in Ferguson, Mo., as a springboard. But the fact the same horrible tragedies continue with alarming frequency today add, quite unintentionally, to the song’s unsettling storyline. Also addressed is the intolerance and almost celebrated ignorance that have risen with such turmoil. Sings Hood: “We want our truths all fair and balanced as long as our notions lie within it.”
Most revealing of all, perhaps, is Hood’s “Ever South,” a troubled remembrance from a now self-exiled Southerner that speaks initially to unwelcome Irish immigrants of centuries past. But the conflict between the love and loyalty that past generations held for the region, and the inescapable hatred that has often hijacked it, strike to the embattled core of “American Band.”
“Tell your stories of our fathers and the glories of our house,” Hood sings. “Always told a little slower, ever south.”