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Published: 2011/08/03
by Brian Robbins

Drive-By Truckers
Ugly Buildings, Whores & Politicians (Greatest Hits 1998 - 2009)

New West Records

By virtue of referring to the Drive-By Truckers’ new Ugly Buildings, Whores & Politicians as their “greatest hits,” New West has provided some classic fodder for DBT fans to debate. I mean, let’s face it: when it came to, say, the Rolling Stones’ Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass) back in 1966, it was basically a matter of gathering up an armful of the band’s chart-topping singles: the sales drove the track listing. Here we have a band with ten studio albums under their belt to date (nine originals plus an album of “oddities and rarities”) who came right out of the chute with some memorable tunes – but not a radio “single” as such to their name. It just doesn’t work that way any more, boys and girls.

So what’s the “correct” criteria for choosing the “greatest hits” of a band that really hasn’t had any – just a shitload of good songs? I don’t know; you tell me. Holding any such collection to a single disc puts a definite cap on the available space; so would a double-disc collection, for that matter. I mean – assuming you’re familiar with the Truckers’ catalog – how many real best-be-forgotten stinkers can you come up with from the period covered here? Uh-huh. Well, then … do the math, boys and girls. Short of a ten-CD box set, they couldn’t all make the cut.

In the meantime, Ugly Buildings, Whores & Politicians ain’t a bad place to start.

(The name, in case such things torment you, comes from the movie Chinatown. John Huston’s character Noah Cross tells Jake Gittes [Jack Nicholson] at one point: “‘Course I’m respectable – I’m old. Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”)

Right off the bat, you have to hand it to whoever was responsible for the sequencing of the tracks on Ugly Buildings – or, more specifically, the bookends. The album kicks off with “The Living Bubba” from the band’s 1998 debut, Gangstabilly. With the yin/yang of John Neff’s lovely pedal steel against the slow thrash of over-driven 6-strings in the background, Patterson Hood belts out his tribute to Gregory Dean Smalley, a hero of Athens, GA’s “Redneck Underground” scene back in the ‘90s. Smalley was one of those who lived to play, for whom a gig was a gig, whether it was for a fully-packed house or a dozen drunks. There’s not a lot of recorded evidence of the man’s existence, but those who witnessed Smalley on stage speak of him in head-shaking reverence. Patterson Hood was one of them; unfortunately, by the time Hood crossed paths with Smalley in 1995, the local legend was dying of AIDS. “The Living Bubba” poignantly captures Smalley’s homestretch attitude (in the final year before his death, he pounded out over 100 gigs): “I can’t die now ‘cause I got another show to do.” It was an impressive performance for a debut album: ragged, right, and real as all hell.

And on the other end of the collection is “A World of Hurt” from 2006’s A Blessing and A Curse. Here Hood sounds something like what Lou Reed might have if he’d grown up in Alabama. (Imagine Reed’s “Coney Island Baby” fueled on Jack Daniels rather than smack.) Hood’s half-spoken vocal lays it all out – from blackness to light – and in the end, when he tells us all, “Remember, it ain’t too late to take a deep breath and throw yourself into it with everything you got,” you can’t help but nod to yourself. “It’s great to be alive,” he testifies. Damn straight.

In between those two songs are 14 more samples of vintage Truckers. Guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Jason Isbell’s tenure with the band is represented by two songs: his Tom Petty-ish “Never Gonna Change” and “Outfit”. (I already warned you – don’t start. There is no right answer to the question of what Isbell songs are the “best” – only opinions.) Of the two, “Outfit” takes the ribbon for its stick-in-your-brainpan lyrics and waltz-like rhythm as a father advises his soon-to-be-leaving son:

Don’t call what you’re wearing an outfit
Don’t ever say your car is broke
Don’t sing with a fake British accent
Don’t act like your family’s a joke
Have fun, but stay clear of the needle
Call home on your sister’s birthday
Don’t tell them you’re bigger than Jesus
Don’t give it away
Don’t give it away

Ugly Buildings is peppered with tunes penned by Hood’s long-time musical co-conspirator Mike Cooley, of course. Cooley’s songs tell stories (“Carl Perkins’ Cadillac” offers some Sun Records history, while “Uncle Frank” loses his world to the TVA); they swagger as Stonesy as Stonesy can be (“Marry Me” or “3 Dimes Down”); and they never fail to deliver lyrics ready-made for a t-shirt or yearbook quote (consider the closing lines of “Zip City”: “I got 350 heads on a 305 engine/I get ten miles to the gallon/I ain’t got no good intentions.” Again, one could debate Cooley song choices until the next collection comes around – watch me: “What? No ‘Space City’?” – but what’s here is good and only so many would fit.

Then there are Patterson Hood songs, which span the gamut from the autobio-anthem “Let There Be Rock” to the soul-searchings of a man standing on the steps of some sort of no return (“Lookout Mountain” or “Sink Hole”). “Ronnie & Neil”, an act from 2001’s Southern Rock Opera, pays tribute to what counts (the late Mr. Van Zandt and the still-very-much-with-us Mr. Young) while “The Righteous Path” questions what doesn’t. And maybe the sweetest of the bunch is “Bulldozers And Dirt” which somehow combines burglary, heavy equipment, and beer into a little tale of love found and lost – wistful mando and all.

Looking back over what I’ve written here, one thing needs to be noted: even though I’ve referred to “Cooley songs” or “Patterson Hood songs” or tunes written by Jason Isbell, the bottom line is this is all Drive-By Truckers music.

Ugly Buildings, Whores & Politicians is a fine one-stop primer of this band’s first ten years (or so) of recorded history. And don’t be calling this “Southern rock.” Forget the accents – these are everyman tunes.

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