American Band fortuitously coincides with the US election and their own 20th anniversary, the eleventh album by the Southern American outfit Drive-By Truckers, founded and fronted by Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood, is their most directly political ever. “I don’t want there to be any doubt as to which side of this discussion we fall on. I don’t want there to be any misunderstanding of where we stand”, says Hood. Not much chance of that.
The album explodes with Ramon Casiano, guitars raging and the band conjuring Neil Young at his fieriest as they sing of the late Harlon Carter, a gun-rights advocate, and former National Rifle Association leader who turned the NRA into, essentially, right wing supremacists and literally got away with murder when, near the Mexican border in 1931, he shot and killed the 15-year-old Hispanic Ramon Casiano. Suffice to say, it’s not endorsing Carter’s stance or actions.
Things remain both Youngian and punchy with the steamrollering Darkened Flags On The Cusp Of Dawn, a response to the 2014 police shootings of unarmed African-Americans and the song that provided the impetus for the album. Equally rousing is Surrender Under Protest, a song which, incorporating the Civil War ‘lost cause’ slogan, is a driving, strident attack on Civil War apologist rednecks who refuse to let go of the past while, by contrast Guns of Umpqua slows and quietens things down for a song about last year’s mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon as Hood sings “Made it back from hell’s attack in some distant bloody war only to stare down hell back home.”
The continuing bloody and tragic impact of America’s gun culture is also at the core of the strummed acoustic (with a touch of twang) What It Means, inspired by the shootings of young African-Americans and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement as it pointedly notes how “you don’t see too many white kids lying bleeding on the street,” questioning how we remain so backward when we have advanced so far.
Elsewhere, with musical nods to both The Band and You Never Can Tell, Kinky Hypocrite is rolling piano-led Southern boogie about right-wing-Christians who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk and Filthy and Fried ramps up the organ for a descending chords mid-tempo anthemic Southern rock roller about gender shifts (“Bottles falling in a dumpster and a stale smell rising through a sickening summer haze to the rhythm of a boot-heeled hipster cowgirl’s clunky sashay of shame”).
Sun Don’t Shine slows things down for a bluesy ride that, despite talking about markets crashing, strikes a more personal than political note, the same holding true of the whiningly sung, slow burn blues album closer Baggage, a song about Hood’s experience of depression, inspired by and referencing Robin Williams’ suicide.
The two remaining cuts are equally musically subdued. The Band-like slow strummed, gospel piano stroked Once They Banned Imagine recalls the South’s burning of The Beatles’ albums in the 60s by ghosts hanging on to the past and how, after Clear Channel recommended Lennon’s classic to be played on the airwaves after 9/11, “it became the same old war it’s always been.” The other is Ever South, a funky R&B boogie by Hood that, looking back at his Scottish and Irish roots, reflects on both his own move to Portland and the whole nature of Southerner migration and the accusations of betrayal from Dixie-heads it prompts, even though, wherever they may live, they remain ‘ever South’.
With the current divisions tearing America apart, this isn’t just a bloody good album, it’s a bloody important one too.
Released via ATO Records