December 9, 2023

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Drive-By Truckers: The New OK Album Review

The stage, rather than the studio, is the Drive-By Truckers’ natural habitat, and the place where they leave their deepest mark. Working without a setlist and drawing from an inexhaustible catalog that goes back more than 30 years, they tear through songs about the South, about America, about resistance and rebellion, very few of which sound settled or pat. After the global pandemic shut down the tour behind their first 2020 album, The Unraveling, the band spent the rest of the year hunkered down in their homes like the rest of us, missing the catharsis of the rock show as well as the financial security of touring. For months Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley alternated Wednesday-night livestreams, which allowed them to dig into their trove of songs and recount old war stories. It made for compelling streaming, but it wasn’t quite the same.

Their new pandemic record, the surprise-released The New OK, is a direct product of this frustrating predicament. In addition to songs they recorded in Memphis during the Unraveling sessions, it includes two new songs written by Hood during lockdown and recorded by the band members at studios near their homes. The result is a patchwork quilt of an album, stitched together from scraps gathered here and there—but then, those quilts are often the warmest, the most comforting. In fact, for a band that typically grounds its albums in a sturdy conceptual or thematic framework, the Truckers have always done well with a certain amount of raggedness and sprawl. Over their nearly 25 years together under that admittedly “bad” band name, they’ve mastered a wider array of styles and sounds than the “Southern rock” label might suggest, and The New OK is a chance to show off more sides of themselves, from the R&B horns of those Memphis sessions to the old-school punk of their Ramones cover to the more post-punk sound of Hood’s newly penned songs.

Having lived through traumatic upheavals throughout the 2000s, the Truckers evolved into a tight, adaptable quintet in the 2010s—a decade that saw them pivot from Southern band to American Band, from “the duality of the Southern thing” to the duality of the American thing. This current lineup is the most stable in the band’s history and arguably the best, despite lacking a third songwriting talent like Jason Isbell or a vocal powerhouse like Shonna Tucker. The New OK showcases the contributions of every member of the band: Multi-instrumentalist Jay Gonzalez adds a lush organ intro to “Tough to Let Go” that recalls Automatic for the People, and drummer Brad Morgan puts some stealthy funk into the breezily poignant “Sea Island Lonely.” Bassist Matt Patton even sings lead on two songs, hollering his head off on “The Unraveling” and unspooling a tragic conspiracy on “The K.K.K. Took My Baby Away.”

Cooley takes only one song on The New OK—the least he’s contributed to a Truckers album since their 1998 debut. But there are few artists who would care to write a country song about Sarah Palin’s legacy of batshit politics and fewer still who could make you want to hear “Sarah’s Flame” more than once. He’s more of a sideman on these songs, but he remains an ingenious guitar player, mixing bluegrass runs with punk rawness to approximate classic rock cockiness. Hood, always the more prolific of the two, doesn’t address the pandemic explicitly, but allows it to add poignancy to “Sea Island Lonely” and “The Distance,” two songs about the emotional drift of touring.

Five years ago, Hood and his family left Athens for the Pacific Northwest, about as far from Georgia as they could get without leaving the continental United States. Their new hometown of Portland, Oregon, as well as its recent experiments in self-governance and dissent, inspired “Watching the Orange Clouds,” about his fatherly fears while watching unrest in his city and wildfires just beyond. “I’m trying really hard to find a way to help to make it all better,” he sings on the chorus, a promise to his kids asleep in the next room but also to listeners who’ve come to expect political engagement from the band. This isn’t a song about outrage but about the frustration of not knowing what to do or how to act, which makes Gonzalez’s synth squelches on the coda sound like a paranoid ’70s thriller, bending the song into a question mark.

In a bold bit of sequencing, The New OK ends with their version of the Ramones’ “The K.K.K. Took My Baby Away,” which has been a live staple for a few years now and was a last-minute addition to their Memphis sessions. Theirs is a fairly straightforward rendition of a song whose timeliness is self-evident, heavier than the original while losing some of the girl-group harmonies. It’s an odd, weirdly poignant, righteously angry exclamation point at the end of the album, as though the Truckers are psyching themselves up for an epic ass-whuppin’. Especially after the unrelenting darkness of its predecessor, The New OK sounds all the more affecting for not being quite so dire. Rather than bemoan the new normal we’ve all been forced to accept, the Truckers celebrate our adaptability and our fortitude, subtly promising there will be better days and more rock shows ahead.

Buy: Rough Trade

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