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Published: 2005/02/04
by Brian Gearing

Gangstability (reissue) – Drive-By Truckers Pizza Deliverance (reissue) – Drive-By Truckers

New West Records
I’m gonna be totally blunt for just a second: If you didn’t buy at least one of the last three Drive-By Truckers records, you’re either a) a totally sheltered, illiterate jamfiend living on BitTorrents and the misguided but well-intentioned CD-burning generosity of others, b) a rock and roll radio fan who wouldn’t know rock and roll if it kicked you in the nuts, or c) a total fucking idiot. And if you did buy one or more of the three and didn’t immediately want to buy another one, well, I guess you’ve only got one choice.

Sure, I’m being a son of a bitch, but listening to an album in retrospect for the first time is a task that could turn anybody into a grouchy, self-righteous asshole. The attitude fits anyway, so if I’m coming on a little strong, it’s only because the roughneck Alabama attitude has rubbed off a little bit. I saw this band five times in 2004, and I’ll be damned if the Truckers aren’t the purest rock and roll band to come around the bend in my lifetime. Their records don’t quite measure up to their live show, but they come pretty damn close, and that’s more than anyone can say for most bands’ studio output, especially those that get reviewed around these parts.
There’s no question that enough people took to at least one of the last three Truckers records (Southern Rock Opera, Decoration Day, and The Dirty South) to insure decent sales for these two re-releases, but Gangstabilly and Pizza Deliverance were made by a different band at a different time. At the time these albums were recorded, not only was baby-faced contributing songwriter and guitarist Jason Isbell quite possibly still in high school, but William Jefferson Clinton was still president, 9/11 was still just a phone number, and there were still some Democrats left in the South. Judging by the subject matter of these two artifacts, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley sure didn’t carry the social and political burdens that weigh so heavily on them on 2004’s The Dirty South, and they certainly weren’t yet near-famous enough to think twice about sharing some of the more private memories that make Gangstabilly and Pizza Deliverance so much more personal than their present day ancestors.
Especially on Pizza Deliverance, which was released later but whose songs were written earlier than those on its companion reissue, Hood and Cooley can’t wait to jump on the therapist’s couch and spill their guts on reminiscent odes to sadistic great-grandmothers (‘Box of Spiders’) and father-son insights (‘One of These Days’). Most of the straight-shooting tunes don’t hit quite as hard (musically or lyrically) as recent songs like ‘Sinkhole’ and ‘Puttin’ People on the Moon,’ but Hood’s grumpy, Southern sense of humor makes up for their lack of gravity and lends a tongue-in-cheek lightheartedness that is missing from the band’s latter-day product. From the country-esque live staples ‘The Company I Keep’ and ‘Bulldozers and Dirt’ to lesser-known treasures like ‘The President’s Penis is Missing’ and ‘Zoloft,’ the younger Truckers’ absurdity is just as charming, if not as deadly serious, as their present incarnation.
That’s not to say the album lacks any social commentary. "Too Much Sex (Too Little Jesus)" digs through the loose pockets of today’s ultra religious, uptight rural south, and "President’s Penis" is a poorly masked commendation of Bill Clinton’s sexual exploits, but the album focuses mostly on the everyday Alabamans that Hood and Cooley grew up with: from Cooley’s cheated war hero, "Uncle Frank," to Hood’s swingin’ neighbors, "Margo and Harold," the tales and characters on Pizza Deliverance go just as deep as their present-day counterparts.
Gangstabilly, recorded first but written second, provides the missing link between the Alabama punk of 2001’s Southern Rock Opera and the mandolin and banjo of Pizza Deliverance. The opener, ‘Wife Beater,’ chuckles along with its gravity, and ‘Demonic Possession’ keeps the mood light, but this first release wallows in a much darker corner than its follow-up. Those who have witnessed the Truckers live might recognize live staples like ‘Steve McQueen’ and ‘Buttholeville,’ both of which rock with all the grit and aggression that have garnered the band so much critical acclaim, but it’s another setlist regular, ‘The Living Bubba,’ that sits at the center of this album.
Greg Smalley’s distorted acoustic ghost buzzes through every note of his vicarious swan song, and its defiant triumph is matched only by the ten ton sadness that weighs on every chord. More than anything, though, "The Living Bubba" preaches the rock and roll gospel by which the hard-living, tour-mongering Truckers have come to live – "I can’t die now, cause I got another show to do" – and the closing message of "Sandwiches for the Road" pulls the curtain on their seemingly endless fount of reckless energy: "Nothing can hurt you but yourself."
With their present line-up seemingly solidified, now is as good a time as any for the Truckers to give their fans a little history lesson, and Gangstabilly and Pizza Deliverance, both with newly penned liner notes from Hood himself, are essential to a full understanding of the band’s identity. While they’ve recently been content as the flag wavers of the heretofore reclusive South, these two reissues show that there was a time when their blistering rock anthems could be soothed by the easy-drinkin’ country ballads that share the spotlight here. Some of the Truckers’ rock fans may find some of this newly rediscovered vintage a little hard to swallow, and newer fans are better off starting with the post-Isbell material, but those who identify with the band’s spirit as well as its attitude will discover a deeper appreciation for the newer material as well as a few dusty classics to hope for the next time the rock show comes to town.

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