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Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Music Marathon 2009 – Part 5 (Drive-By Truckers – Girls)

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Drive-By Truckers – The Fine Print (A Collection of Oddities and Rarities 2003-2008)
I go back and forth on whether rarities/b-sides collections should be included in the marathon, since they function somewhat like greatest hits albums, stretching across multiple years and even styles – but since the contents tend to be new to most of us, their inclusion is basically in the spirit of the thing.  In this case, I have fewer qualms, since The Fine Print is a pretty solid set complete with a few DBT essentials – plus the band did a little extra studio work on some of these songs to polish them up for official release.

The set focuses largely on outtakes from Decoration Day and The Dirty South, a period of high quality and productivity that saw the band expand from a two-man singing/songwriting/guitar-playing operation with occasional contributions from supporting players to the three-headed Patterson Hood/Mike Cooley/Jason Isbell beast that yielded a disproportionate number of the decade’s best songs.

As with most DBT releases, the prolific Hood gets the most songs here.  “George Jones Talkin’ Cell Phone Blues” is the big winner (especially with a slide lead that wasn’t on the original web-only release of the song), and “Mrs. Claus’ Kimono” is a cute, ribald Christmas tune that probably doesn’t need to be heard more than a couple of times seasonally, but it’s a welcome DBT entry in the holiday genre.  The others are decent, second-rate Hood, including a new, upbeat run at “Goode’s Field Road” from the band’s last album, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark.

Cooley, who seems to be undergoing a bit of a creative renaissance lately with his songs on BTCD, only has two songs here, one a spirited, but unnecessary, remake of his own early DBT nugget “Uncle Frank” and the other a forgettable acoustic tune.

Isbell, no longer a member of the band, is represented by two original tracks, “When the Well Runs Dry” (previously issued on a Dirty South b-side), and a studio version of “TVA,” a heartfelt ode to the New Deal that (I think) dates back to Isbell first joining the band.  “Well” is easily the weakest of the five songs Isbell wrote for The Dirty South, but when the other four are “Danko/Manuel,” “The Day John Henry Died,” “Goddamn Lonely Love,” and “Never Gonna Change,” that’s not a huge slam.  “TVA” stands with some of his best work, though, and one suspects that the only reason it didn’t make the cut for Decoration Day is that the other two Isbell songs were also mid-tempo 3/4 ballads.

Covers fill out the rest of the collection and provide both the highlights and lowlights.  Their spirited take on Tom Petty’s “Rebels” is nothing short of incredible.  It’s a perfect fit for the band, and delivers on every level.  Similarly, a crunchy cover of Warren Zevon’s Skynyrd tribute “Play It All Night Long” sounds so much like an outtake from the band’s own Southern Rock Opera that fans could probably be forgiven for thinking it was an original.  Their version of Tom T. Hall’s “Mama Bake a Pie (Daddy Kill a Chicken)” is nothing special, though, and the less said about their overly faithful, every-vocalist-takes-a-verse cover of “Like a Rolling Stone” (previously released in a few places over the years), the better.

One of the nice things about collections like this, though, is that you don’t need to worry about cohesiveness, so track-by-track downloading makes a bit of sense.  So here’s what you need:  “George Jones…,” “Rebels,” “Play It All Night Long,” “TVA,” and maybe “Mrs. Claus’ Kimono.”  The rest are negotiable, except for “Like a Rolling Stone,” which might actually take your respect for the band down a notch.

The Flaming Lips – Embryonic

… some of my favorite records – thinking Beatles ‘White Album,’ Zeppelin’s ‘Physical Graffiti’ and even some of the longer things that the Clash have done – part of the reason I like them is that they’re not focused. They’re kind of like a free-for-all and go everywhere.  – Wayne Coyne on double albums

Okay, here’s the problem with Wayne’s thinking.  Those albums (unless he’s talking about the Clash’s Sandinista) may be sprawling, they may be unfocused, but the individual songs are, generally speaking, focused, well-constructed, and varied.  Embryonic has the sprawl and the lack of focus, but it’s basically a long experiment in sound and tone, not content.  There’s nothing happening on Embryonic that the band couldn’t accomplish in about a third of the running time, and, if they’d been a little more scrupulous, they’d have a career highlight with this album.

It’s easy to be taken in, given the album’s powerful beginning.  “Convinced of the Hex” establishes the band’s jagged, percussive new sound, a merciful change from the sugary-sweet pop that made At War with the Mystics one of the most disappointing albums of the 00’s.  But by the time “See the Leaves” (track 5) rolls around, the band’s already given us every permutation of this new identity.  Rhythm’n’skronk tracks like “Hex,” “Leaves,” and “The Sparrow Looks Up at the Machine” trade off with repetitive and spare ambient pieces like “Evil,” and unstructured jams like “Your Bats” and “Aquarius Sabotage.”  Repeat, repeat, repeat, don’t bother with a memorable lyric or melody.  Things tighten up at the end with “Silver Trembling Hands” and “Watching the Planets,” but this is decidedly not a “songs” album, which is sort of the problem.  The great double albums may give the artists room to move, but it’s not like The White Album is full of five other songs that sound like “Back in the U.S.S.R.”; “Kashmir” isn’t surrounded by a bunch of repeated arpeggios shaped vaguely into songs; and London Calling doesn’t arty and boring for a long stretch in the middle.  And even as noisy conceptual albums go, there are ways to do it without being so damned predictable (see Kid A, the Liars’ Drum’s Not Dead, even Sonic Youth’s Bad Moon Rising).

In short, I love that the Lips decided to go in an entirely new direction, but wish they’d taken the time to write the songs to go with it (seriously – this is the band that wrote The Soft Bulletin, a spectacular combination of atmosphere and songs).

Florence & the Machine – Lungs
I’m coming around on this one, mostly due to Raina’s pressuring.  You see, I have a built-in aversion to post-80s British rock that draws too heavily on American blues and gospel.  There’s this tendency to overdo things – pitch-perfect choirs augmented by big, gothic synths, and drum machines.  I’m pretty sure this has something to do with late 80s/early 90s MTV “alternative” outlet, 120 Minutes.  Y’see, I’d stay up late watching this thing waiting for the Pixies and Sonic Youth, and I’d have to sit through an awful lot of ill-conceived UK experiments that brought in gospel-sounding choirs to achieve “big”-ness (everyone from the Happy Mondays to the Sisters of Mercy tried this move).

So my initial response to F&tM may be somewhat irrational, but the sound of Lungs does seem more rooted in this sort of UK indie-rock/American roots experimentation than in the more current bluesy, soulful British pop like Amy Winehouse.  Anyway, I’m working to overcome it, because Florence does have some serious vocal chops (bringing to mind Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano, of all people), and the compositions are pretty interesting, if not quite as subtle and well-conceived as Bat for Lashes’ songs, which are cut from a similar epic cloth (but minus the soul stuff).  It’s worth a listen, but it’s just not a slam dunk for me.

Girls – Album
I don’t get the hype, but it’s a pretty listenable collection of lo-fi pop songs, somewhat compromised by some unfortunate vocal tics.  The more I listen, the more I like it, including the single “Lust for Life,” which I hated at first.


Written by Dave

December 31, 2009 at 3:06 pm

One Response

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  1. I agree on the Lips. I think the peak was Soft Bulletin closely followed by Yoshimi. They’ve just kind of gone batshit nuts with every following release. I did just buy Soft Bulletin on the vinyl reissue they put out. Even more outstanding than the CD, although I never did get my hands on the 5.1mix of Bulletin, which, if it like the Yoshimi one, is totally mind blowing in a proper stereo setup. I’ve gone true audiophile crazy now.


    December 31, 2009 at 10:24 pm

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