3.5 out of 5 stars
With longtime members Shonna Tucker and John Neff out of the lineup, the Drive-By Truckers scale back and lurch forward on their twelfth album. English Oceans is a meat-and-potatoes rock and roll record, rawer and rougher than anything since Alabama Ass Whuppin’, and its leanness highlights the band’s strengths while amplifying a few lingering weaknesses.
Co-frontman Patterson Hood knocks it out of the park with “Grand Canyon,” a panoramic power ballad about the romance of the road, but whiffs on the sludgy “When He’s Gone,” which paints the picture of a tired, loveless marriage with familiar colors and lazy brushstrokes. His storytelling is sometimes threatened by his singing, too; he’s always been better with words than melodies, and something about English Oceans’ bare-boned stomp makes his off-key notes more distinct.
The good news? Hood gets a good bit of help from gangstabuddy Mike Cooley, who – after spending the last two albums in the Truckers’ backseat – takes the wheel on some of the album’s best songs. Those songs help frame English Oceans as a genuine rock album, and Cooley keeps himself in fighting shape throughout, whether he’s delivering twin shotgun blasts of Southern boogie buckshot and Cracker Barrel poetry on the kickoff track, “Shit Shots Count,” or crooning the throwback country-rock strains of “Natural Light” like some old-school saloon singer. He shines the brightest on “Primer Coat,” a classic example of what the Truckers have always done best: set the habits, histories, and humans of the American south to music. They’re documentarians, taking stock of everything that crosses their path – the mighty and the mundane, the peasants and the politicians – and soundtracking each story with a tangle of percussion and electric guitar riffs.
Speaking of guitars, keyboardist Jay Gonzalez abandons the Nord and picks up his own six-string for a handful of tracks, proof that nothing – not even the departures of Jason Isbell, John Neff and Rob Malone – can kill the Truckers’ insistence on having three guitarists in the band. That’s a good sign, though; these guys clearly know their roots, and English Oceans is all about getting back to where they came from.