Drive-By Truckers

Decoration Day

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For a musician, the trouble with making your best album is you have to figure out a way to top it next time out, and that isn't always easy. On their first three albums, the Drive-By Truckers were a better-than-average band from the harder-and-faster end of the alt-country spectrum who blended Replacements-esque snot and slop with a Lynyrd Skynyrd-influenced shot of twangy hard rock. But it was when the Truckers confronted the ghost of Skynyrd as well as the often confusing legacy of both Southern rock and what DBTs leader Patterson Hood calls "the duality of the Southern thing" that they finally achieved greatness; Southern Rock Opera was that modern rarity, a successful concept album, a thoughtful examination of race and class in America, and a superb, balls-out hard rock album wrapped up in one proudly homemade package. The brilliance of Southern Rock Opera certainly upped the ante for the DBTs' follow-up, and it would be a lie to say Decoration Day is just as remarkable as the album that preceded it. But Decoration Day is every bit as ambitious a work as Southern Rock Opera, broadening the band's sound and style while staying true to their ideals and approach. If you're looking for tough, Southern-styled rock, "Marry Me," "Careless," and "Do It Yourself" offer it up in spades (and "Hell No, I Ain't Happy" sounds like it could be a new generation's "Take This Job and Shove It"); but the quiet bad-seed ballads "The Deeper In" and "Heathens" and the tragic love songs "My Sweet Anette" and "Sounds Better in the Song" all display a subtlety and restraint one might not have expected from this band, while still boasting the flinty honesty of the Truckers' best work. Decoration Day lacks the narrative cohesion of Southern Rock Opera, but all of these songs are informed by the experience of living and dying in the Deep South, described with a deeply felt compassion but with no false illusions, and the DBTs draw their portraits with a deep and telling eye for the details; Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp never wrote a Farm Aid song as bitter and pointed as "Sink Hole," while "Outfit" and the title tune both celebrate a man's Alabama heritage while examining the toll it has claimed of his sons. Somber and smart, Decoration Day also manages to kick like a mule, and if isn't the same sort of masterpiece as Southern Rock Opera, it's strong enough to suggest the Drive-By Truckers may have a handful of masterpieces up their sleeves.

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