Drive-By Truckers | English Oceans (ATO)

cd drive-by truckersWhat bothers me the most about English Oceans is that it feels like they are just treading the same waters they’ve been treading since 2004.

 

I’m just going to start out by saying I really do love the Truckers. I do. Granted, I feel they’ve been hit or miss since 2004’s The Dirty South. My issue with their albums since then seems to be accentuated on this album, which I’ll get to. At worst, English Oceans is middle of the road. There are some bright points, but overall, the bad seems to drag this way down for me. Maybe it’s me and this album will grow on me with time, but after a dozen listens, it’s just not speaking to me, and that kind of bums me out. It’s getting great reviews in other places, which has me wondering: What am I missing? At least this gives the band a good reason to tour, which is always a great thing.

The album starts out very strong, with the Mike Cooley–penned rocker “Shit Shots Count.” I suspect this will be a regular live addition as it really is a great track, possibly as an opener on the current tour. Over the years, I’ve been much happier with Cooley’s tracks than Patterson Hood’s. His lyrics are stronger, his delivery more heartfelt. In terms of Uncle Tupelo, Cooley is my Jay Farrar to Patterson’s Jeff Tweedy. The songs change back and forth from Cooley’s to Hood’s, as the album is composed of contributions just from them. Over the years, they have incorporated songs from former bassist Shonna Tucker, as well as former member Jason Isbell. Here, they have solidified that this is Hood’s and Cooley’s album and band. One of my issues with this album is there doesn’t seem to be a central theme. What has made their albums in the past great is just that: a theme, a focal point to rally around, some commonality. The tracks have nothing but themselves to build upon. Sometimes that is fine and dandy, but here I feel it is a detriment.

I think the thing that seems to bother me the most about English Oceans is that it feels like they are just treading the same waters they’ve been treading since 2004. The songs sound the same as they always do, and the lyrics are so similar here that I cannot tell where this album begins and where the previous few albums end. For me, the only thing saving this album from being totally boring is Cooley. His songs are the strongest tracks on this album, and they feel the most genuine. He knows how to turn a phrase that is profound, quotable, and with a certain common-man wit to it. Even though they are equals in terms of leading the band, Patterson is the more outgoing of the two and is thought of more as the leader. Most of his songs on English Oceans are just new versions of the same songs he’s done for years—I hate to say it, but almost generic. “When He’s Gone” follows the same formula Hood has used so many times before: failed relationship and both parties lamenting about it. It just feels so played out, which is a shame because when Hood is on, he’s on (see: “Grand Canyon”).

None of this is to say this album is bad; it just feels average, at best. Maybe at this point in their career, that is all the Truckers need. They are still a damn fantastic band live and tour regularly. There are nonetheless some standout tracks here: the aforementioned “Shit Shot Counts,” “Made Up English Oceans,” “Till He’s Dead or Rises,” and the immaculate “Grand Canyon” that serves as a tribute to longtime Athens’ music fixture Craig Lieske, who passed last year. He was their friend and merch guy and this is just a lovely tribute to him. This really should be their live closer; it’s just a beautiful song. Again, maybe the album as a whole will grow on me over time, but for me it’s just kinda there. C+ | Mike Koehler

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