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Published: 2009/08/31
by Brian Robbins

Drive-By Truckers
The Fine Print

New West Records

The Drive-By Truckers’ new The Fine Print (A Collection of Oddities and Rarities 2003-2008) feels like a big ol’ multi-chaptered comic book (or graphic novel, if you must), chock full of bigger-than-life characters and feelings rendered in loud colors and clever dialogue. And there ain’t a thing wrong with that.

As Trucker frontman Patterson Hood explains, “We don’t tend to have many extra tracks lying around,” with the bulk of these cuts coming from sessions for 2004’s The Dirty South. This slice of DBT history makes for plenty of contributions from the since-departed Jason Isbell, along with tasty pedal steel cameos by now-fulltime member John Neff.

In lesser hands, the album-opening “George Jones Talkin’ Cell Phone Blues” would’ve been a mean-spirited poke at Jones and his 1999 car accident (while talking on – that’s right – a cell phone). Here, Hood sings it like he means it – he really wants ol’ Possum to leave that cell alone. “If you don’t change your ways, my friend,” Hood warns, “you’ll be singin’ duets with Tammy again” (referring to Jones’ former wife and singing partner, the late Tammy Wynette).

Elsewhere, we receive a history lesson on the Tennessee Valley Authority with two very different approaches: guitarist/vocalist Mike Cooley’s tragic (yet rocking) “Uncle Frank” tells a story of what sometimes went wrong, while “TVA” is a tender Jason Isbell memoir of what went right.

Those jonesing for The Sopranos may find some relief in the twin “southern crime syndicate” sagas of “Goode’s Field Road” and “The Great Car Dealer War.” Hood totally gets in the heads of the fuck-ups narrating each story, to the point where things almost begin to make sense … right down to Big Jim Stevens’ blood all over his showroom and its contents, including “the Monte Carlo and the brand-new IROC Z.”

In the children’s section – or maybe not – we have a couple of neat twists. In “Mrs. Claus’ Kimono” Hood adopts the voice of a “sinister elf with a sinister plan,” who just wants “a little sex and the Old Man off my back.” Over a slinky John Lee Hooker-style riff, Hood slurs his story of betrayal, bestiality (yep – Rudolph’s in on it, too), and adultery. Phew. On the other hand, “Little Pony and the Great Big Horse” finds Mike Cooley – easily the most ragged-but-right Trucker (and one of the last people on earth that might actually convince you that it’s cool to smoke on stage) – turning a dumb dirty joke (you can look it up) into a sweet little tale of patience, grace, and growing older.

And then there are the covers: Tom Petty’s “Rebels” and the late Warren Zevon’s “Play It All Night Long” are naturals for the Truckers’ triple guitar swagger while it would have been easy to think that “Mama Bake A Pie” was a Hood original, but it’s not. Originally written by country star Tom T. Hall during the Vietnam War, this tale of a returning vet whose legs are only one entry on the list of things he’s lost is just as relevant today.

Finally, there’s the cover of “Like A Rolling Stone.” a performance Hood admits he reluctantly agreed to and then was pleasantly surprised with the results. Hood, Isbell, Cooley, and bassist Shonna Tucker each take a verse (the session was actually Tucker’s first-ever lead vocal for the Truckers), putting their own yank on the Bob classic. Did they need to this? No. Is it cool that they did? Yes.

Throughout it all, drummer Brad Morgan deserves MVP status, as his often-basic-but-always-right timekeeping holds down the fort no matter how wild-assed the rest of the band may get.

All in all, The Fine Print is a good album – a really good album for an outtakes collection, in fact. Most importantly, like any comic book – sorry; graphic novel – worth its cover price, it’s just plain fun.

Hide it under your coat if it makes you feel better.

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