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Album Review: 'English Oceans,' By Drive-By Truckers


The band Drive-By Truckers are in their third decade playing alternative country music tinged with Southern pride. Critic Robert Christgau says they put out a great album in 2008 then hit a lull. But he says their latest album, out this week, is a true comeback.

ROBERT CHRISTGAU, BYLINE: I confess I had no idea what the title song of the Drive-By Truckers' "English Oceans" was about until I read the press kit. Oh, it's Mike Cooley's poetic take on how Republican operative Lee Atwater imagined the male, white, Southern psyche. And it's heightened by the beat - an ominous quick-step march.


MIKE COOLEY: (Singing) See, once you grab them by the pride, their hearts are bound to fall, their natural fear of anything less manly or less natural (unintelligible) How hard it is for (unintelligible) because only simple men could see the logic in (unintelligible) a man whittle down. But you can fit it on a (unintelligible) and get it stuck like mud and (unintelligible) They'll live it like it's gospel and they'll quote it like it's scripture.

CHRISTGAU: The Drive-By Truckers could retire tomorrow pretty sure that the South will never spawn a better songwriting band. But it's been six years since the inexhaustible "Brighter Than Creation's Dark" and an unprecedented three since their last album, the slightly subpar "Go-Go Boots." So, figure the long layoff gave Mike Cooley enough time to write because this is the first Drive-By Truckers album where he dominates his prolific partner, Patterson Hood. Cooley sets the pace with a lead track that's my favorite song of the young year.


COOLEY: (Singing) Pride is what you charge a proud man for half. Shame is what you sell to a whore. Meat's just meat, and it's all born dying. Some is tender, and some is tough. Somebody's got a (unintelligible) Somebody's got to mop up the blood.

CHRISTGAU: Meat's just meat and it's all born dying - a powerful, fatalistic image. Although the more philosophical Cooley doesn't come up with material as fast as storyteller Hood, on this record, he has half, six solely written songs plus the lead vocal on one of Hood's. But, of course, Hood also gets to say his piece, as plaintive and acute as ever.


PATTERSON HOOD: (Singing) Call me your baby. I'm nobody's baby. I won't let you cage me or lock me away. I'm not yours to keep. But won't you save me? It's just a vacation, a one-way station.

CHRISTGAU: "Pauline Hawkins," that song is called, about a woman who thinks "love is like cancer," quote, unquote, but finds sex a solace sometimes. And you can bet Hood provides a bunch more tales of strugglers in an industrialized South he doubts was ever as new as advertised.

But Cooley has always been the more painstaking melodist and facile singer of the two. And on "English Oceans," it's his songs that shine brightest. That's why this isn't just a major album by a major band but something new.

COOLEY: (Singing) Stay up in the darkness. I'm going to feel the highway roll.

CORNISH: Critic Robert Christgau reviewed the new album from Drive-By Truckers, "English Oceans." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robert Christgau contributes regular music reviews to All Things Considered.