For years, Mike Cooley has been the George Harrison of the Drive-By Truckers, the guy who contributed two or three fine songs to each DBTs album while frontman Patterson Hood penned the bulk of the band's repertoire. That changes with English Oceans, the band's tenth studio album, where Cooley gets co-star status for a change -- he penned six of the album's 13 tunes, and sings lead on Hood's "Til He's Dead or Rises." By accident or design, the increased presence of Cooley's songs gives English Oceans a feel of call and response, as Cooley's smart but plainspoken style faces off against Hood's more artful approach as they both spin tales of characters struggling to make sense of the world around them. While the album opens with a world-class rocker, Cooley's "Shit Shots Count," which could pass for a Dixie-fried outtake from Exile on Main St., for the most part English Oceans finds the Truckers in a thoughtful, low-key mood, with the guitar firepower dialed back a bit and both writers imagining characters whose lives range from the poignant ("Primer Coat," "When He's Gone") to the bitter ("The Part of Him") to the tragic ("Made Up English Oceans," "When Walter Went Crazy"). Subtlety has never been this band's biggest selling point, but on English Oceans the Drive-By Truckers show they can pare back their arrangements and create something more atmospheric without stripping their songs of what makes them powerful; Jay Gonzalez's spectral keyboards add a wealth of detail to "Made Up English Oceans" and "Hanging On," and drummer Brad Morgan and bassist Matt Patton are a rhythm section that can rise to any challenge these songs present. Ten albums and 18 years on from their first show, the Drive-By Truckers are still capable of mixing things up and showing off new sides of their skill set, and that's certainly the case with English Oceans, which shows them making wise use of all their talents -- not just Mike Cooley.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming