“To call these past few months trying would be a dramatic understatement” says Patterson Hood, when questioned about “The New OK”, which is Drive-By Truckers 13th album. It arrives precisely nine months and one day after the 12th. In that time, the world has changed, perhaps forever. No, probably forever.
The other week I was joking with a friend that there’s a raft of phrases that we didn’t even know back in January that are now an integral part of our lives. “Social distancing”, “R Rate”, “The New Normal”, “Local Lockdown” – add all yours as appropriate.
It was the speed of it, that’s what got you. Back in early March I had bought some tickets for gigs and football matches. Within days, it was obvious they’d never be played, the job I’d done for years was never going to be the same, and I went to the bank this morning queuing in the street wearing a mask.
On the sleeve notes for “…OK”, DBT main man Patterson Hood puts it like this: “DBT released The Unraveling on Jan. 31st 2020 and set out for what was supposed to be a full year of touring. We completed the first leg of the tour at DC’s beloved 9:30 Club on Feb. 29th. We all went home for a brief break before resuming at Vogue in Indianapolis on March 12th. We were two songs into the soundcheck for that show when we were told that the entire tour was to be postponed indefinitely due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We packed up the trailer and headed home where we’ve pretty much been ever since.”
I know for a fact they had a full year planned. One of the things I’ve had refunded was my ticket to see the band in London. I also totally get why a creative type would need (not want, it runs deeper) to make a record. Goodness me, doing this website keeps me sane(ish) so they had little choice, really, other than to write some new songs, find a home for some that were in “The Unraveling” sessions and get ready to go.
In many ways DBT are made for this type of endeavour too. They, lest we forget, wrote one of the great political tunes in “Putting People On The Moon”, and the title track proves it, really. Coming in with the classic DBT sound, if you like. Hood is unique too, in the way he delivers his lyrics and the way he writes.
“Tough To Let Go” was originally conceived five years ago, its laid back soul touches take the sound back to the Jason Isbell days (Hood says he even checked it wasn’t one of his former bandmates songs!) but the glorious organ gives it a gentle, timeless feel.
“The Unraveling” is an interesting diversion. The title of the last album, it didn’t make the cut, that it fits so perfectly with the narrative here is testament to it, and Bobby Matt’s vocals give it a raw, punky feel (think The Dexateens, and if you don’t know them, sort it!) that is wonderfully in keeping with the raw emotion of 2020.
“The Perilous Night” though, is the highlight. Written on the night that America lost its minds (its cool we did it too, last year) listening to the song, now in retrospect, it’s incredibly prescient. The Clash flavours it evokes are superb.
I have always had a soft spot for the songs of Mike Cooley and “Sarah’s Flame” is no different, dealing with the Charlottesville riots in his typically quirky way, the soul element is right to the fore again here, as it is on “Sea Island Lonely”. Another that was held over from the last album as it didn’t fit the vibe, the horn soaked thing is magnificent.
“The Distance” has a feel of their “Let Their Be Rock” opera, right back to the early moments of the band, it was originally written for their “English Oceans” album. The fact it has seen the light of day here, is something to be grateful for.
“Watching The Orange Clouds” is, like the title track, written in the here and now, in the aftermath of the awful George Floyd murder and the subsequent riots. It is exactly the type of social commentary that the band lend themselves too, and it sounds more natural than most and less earnest than the two new songs on the recent Bon Jovi record, for sure.
Ending it with The Ramones’ “The KKK Took My Baby Away” is merely an underlining that anything goes here. Time and time again in the notes Patterson Hood wrote about songs not “fitting the narrative” on other albums, and stripped away of all that and given the freedom this just proves the skill in the band.
Years ago, all my favourite bands used to save this type of stuff for B-sides, and it became some of my real favourite material. This is the modern equivalent. B-sides for “The New OK” you might say, and they are wonderful.