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Dirty Deeds

  Drive-By Truckers: The Dirty South
New West, 2004
Rating: 4.4
    Steve Earle: The Revolution Starts…Now
E Squared/Artemis, 2004
Rating: 3.6

Posted: September 3, 2004

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Steve Earle and the Drive-By Truckers have both built healthy followings by breathing new life into well-worn musical models and making them their own. In the thick of a contentious and polarizing election year, both have released albums that speak out about the world around them, and while there are similarities -- both are singularly unafraid to tackle social issues, and both are rooted, musically speaking, in the past -- they couldn't be more different.

When Earle released Guitar Town in the mid-1980s, he was originally labeled as a country artist. But his undeniable rock 'n' roll attitude soon set him apart from the genre. His arrangements, subject matter and ornery personality left country far behind, and a notorious (and very rock 'n' roll) drug habit landed him a stint in prison. Clean, sober and a much more mature and fully-rounded artist in every sense, he's now pretty much his own genre, churning out album after album steeped in rock, folk, country and even bluegrass.

That approach has served Earle well in his sterling post-prison career, but it's exactly the problem with his politically charged The Revolution Starts…Now. While the record finds Earle at his most outspoken, it also finds him treading water stylistically, comfortably wearing down the same groove he's occupied since 1997's El Corazon. There are a couple of diversions from that formula, notably the quickly wearisome Caribbean lilt of the throwaway "Condi, Condi" (in which the narrator playfully voices his lust for our National Security Advisor) and the effective spoken-word interlude "Warrior," in which Earle inhabits the persona of war itself ("Once you worshipped me as a god in many tongues and made offering lest I exact too terrible a tribute") over a spare rock background -- it could have been a pretentious disaster, but "Warrior" is far more effective than it has a right to be.

But for the most part, Revolution is a victim of its own comforting familiarity. And the political content -- guess which current war and politician the proudly Leftist Earle rails against? -- does little to distinguish material like the jaunty "Home to Houston" (about a truck driver on the front lines), "Rich Man's War" (a character study of soldiers on both sides of the conflict, which sounds left over from Jerusalem) and the title track, two practically identical versions of which puzzlingly bookend the record.

None of this is to suggest that the songs are necessarily bad: They're not. "The Revolution Starts Now" (a solid if remarkably sedate rocker, in both versions) and the sprightly Ramones-ish workout "F the CC" (with Earle warbling "Fuck the FCC / Fuck the FBI / Fuck the CIA / I'm livin' in the motherfucking USA!") are sturdy, if derivative, and the poignant ballads "Comin' Around" (with Emmylou Harris) and "I Thought You Should Know" provide a welcome respite from the rabble-rousing.

It's just that we've heard it all before from Earle, which impedes any effectiveness his screeds might possess. Like Michael Moore, Earle's already preaching to the converted on a lyrical level; if the music on Revolution can't sound, well, revolutionary, then who can it expect to reach? What minds can it hope to change? Revolution's musical sameness hobbles its topical fervor, rendering it less relevant than Earle certainly intended.

The Dirty South isn't as concerned with of-the-moment topicality, which works in its favor. Many of the characters in its story-songs don't have the luxury of getting riled up at George W. Bush, or indeed of looking out too far beyond their own everyday lives. "All them politicians, they all lyin' sacks of shit / They say better days upon us, but it's sucking left hind tit," Patterson Hood grumbles on "Puttin' People on the Moon," about a man forced into selling drugs -- and, later, working at Wal Mart -- by economic deprivations, "while over there in Huntsville / They puttin' people on the moon."

That tableau sums up Dirty South's recurring theme: the things people endure, and end up doing to one another, when they feel bereft of options. Hood's "Lookout Mountain," a live DBT staple, finds a narrator contemplating the pros and cons of suicide -- "No more worries about paying taxes / What to eat, what to wear." Mike Cooley's stomping opener "Where the Devil Don't Stay" conjures a moonshiner's image of a hellish reckoning without hope of redemption: "I call to the Lord with all my soul / I can hear him rattling the chains on the door / He couldn't get in, I could see he tried / Through the shadows of the cage around the forty-watt light." And the narrator of Jason Isbell's "Never Gonna Change" has long come to terms with his lot: "You can throw me off the Wilson Dam / But there ain't much difference in the man I wanna be and the man I really am."

Some of South's best songs examine these themes not only through the prism of life in the South, but through the filter of Southern mythology as well. Isbell's anthemic "The Day John Henry Died" explores the steel-driving icon's legend from a different perspective than Johnny Cash's popular song, casting a Guthrie-esque eye on the bean-counting impetus behind industrial progress: "An engine never thinks about his daddy / And an engine never needs to write its name," Isbell asserts. Elsewhere, he underscores the inevitability of change, regardless of whether John Henry proves able to out-perform a machine: "It didn't matter if he won / If he lived or if he'd run / They changed the way his job was done / Labor costs were high." Isbell's version strips the legend of its working-man sentimentality, saving its heroics for ringing guitars and soaring choruses.

Similarly, Cooley's biting "Carl Perkins' Cadillac" declines to side too easily with its subjects: Perkins, Elvis Presley and the early rock 'n' roll pioneers of the Sun Records label. (The title refers to the legendary Cadillac that producer and Sun owner Sam Phillips promised to the first artist to win a gold record -- a car whose purchase he then deducted from Perkins' royalties.) The song indicts the performers for their complicity in their own exploitation: "If Mr. Phillips was the only man that Jerry Lee would still call sir / Then I guess Mr. Phillips did all y'all about as good as you deserve," Cooley sings with cool detachment.

Not every take on Southern myth proves as effective: A three-song mini-suite about Sheriff Buford Pusser of Walking Tall fame (the Joe Don Baker original, thank you, not the Rock's tepid remake), told from the point of view of the bootleggers and syndicate men with whom he clashed, buckles under its own weight: Hood's two contributions ("The Boys From Alabama" and "The Buford Stick") prove one too many, and they bookend a Cooley number, the affecting but slightly cartoonish "Cottonseed" ("I put more lawmen in the ground than Alabama put Cottonseed"), that might have been more effective elsewhere in the album's sequencing.

South occasionally strays off its thematic course: Hood's musically sturdy but melodramatic "Tornadoes" doesn't really address a lack of choices, unless one chooses to view the titular storms as metaphors for the buffeting winds of change; his World War II-themed "The Sands of Iwo Jima" comes closest in spirit to Earle's Revolution, but more of a character study than an indictment of war; Isbell's "Danko / Manuel" is a pretty, if lyrically diffuse, paean to The Band's Rick Danko and Richard Manuel; and Cooley's "Daddy's Cup" is a likeable number about a second-generation race-car driver's life lessons.

But it's hard to quibble with these thematic diversions, each a strong song in its own right. The Dirty South never claims to be a full-on concept album anyway, and its impressive strengths lay less in examining whether every song lives up to the album's title than they do in the confident songwriting of the three singer-guitarists and the band's new level of rock 'n' roll muscularity. The proud allegiance to Lynyrd Skynyrd that marked the band's breakthrough Southern Rock Opera may have led some observers to view the Truckers as a kind of novelty act trafficking in the oxymoronic realm of post-modern Southern Rock, but South dismisses that notion once and for all.

The Truckers do incorporate Southern Rock into their roots-punk approach, just as bands like Uncle Tupelo, Dash Rip Rock and Jason and the Scorchers melded punk with old-timey folk and rural country music. But South undeniably positions the group as a hard-rocking roots act, and further as one of today's most assured rock bands, period, and the current lineup (including new bassist Shonna Tucker, also Isbell's wife) is its strongest yet. Nowhere is this more evident than in the opening hat-trick of "Devil Don't Stay," "Tornadoes" and "John Henry" -- the latter an adrenalized, fist-pumping rocker that John Thomas Griffith of Cowboy Mouth no doubt dearly wishes he'd written. "Never Gonna Change" is propelled by a chorus perfectly suited for classic rock radio, counterbalanced by Isbell's thoughtful verses.

In fact, Isbell and Cooley finally emerge here as more than just secondary figures to Hood, who's long served as principal singer and songwriter. All of the album's most powerful songs are penned by one of the two, solidifying them for all time as equals (an especially impressive feat in the case of Isbell, who in his mid-twenties is more than a decade younger than Cooley and Hood). But Hood comports himself well, even on leftover tracks from his and Cooley's old band Adam's House Cat, and he does a good job of introducing musical dissonance in "Puttin' People on the Moon" and "The Boys From Alabama," subtly broadening the band's bag of tricks.

The Drive-By Truckers have no doubt firmly rooted themselves in a fertile style that nods to their Southern roots, but their handsome chops and remarkable songwriting push the music into laudable new directions, making The Dirty South a strong contender for Album of the Year. If only Earle, who seems to have gotten a tad too comfortable in his own songwriting skin, could take a page from that playbook, he could craft a record that does justice to his firebrand polemics.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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