Beloved by hicks and hipsters alike, and strong candidates for the title of Best Rock Band in America, Georgia's Drive-By Truckers have done pretty well for themselves since Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley launched the project back in 1996. But critical plaudits and festival billings haven't done a damn thing to erode the band's blue-collar spirit. Right in the middle of The Big To-Do comes a duo of songs wherein Hood and Cooley use good humor and better guitar riffs to relate the frustrations of unlucky folks trapped in dead-end jobs and the even less lucky folks who can't even manage that.
Ever the family man, Hood sings on "This Fucking Job" about trying to support a wife and kids on "fast food wages," eventually concluding, over a searing guitar lead, that "the livin' and the learnin'" make it all worthwhile. Meanwhile, Cooley stays true to his slacker persona on the rollicking, piano-driven "Get Downtown." Its protagonist, Jim, can't find work, and wouldn't particularly care to if it weren't for the pressure from the boss back home. In the spirit of fairness, not to mention by way of excuse, Jim reminds us that "the guys at the top are doin' bad as the guys on the street," and though that's probably true, his carping wife still gets the better line when she replies, "The guys at the top ain't about to be payin' alimony to me."
So there you have it: The Truckers know that times are tough all around. And they know that in tough times, there's no escape better than an amiable rock album stuffed with well-told stories, which is exactly what they've delivered here. The Truckers's albums are typically sprawling affairs, but their latest, comprised of 13 concise tracks, clocks in at a comparatively svelte 54 minutes (by contrast, 2004's The Dirty South stretched 14 songs out over 74 minutes). The songs aren't just shorter than usual either. As a set, they're looser, faster, and harder-hitting too, largely following in the trajectory of "The Righteous Path" and "3 Dimes Down" from the group's last outing. Throughout the opening stretch of songs, from "Daddy Learned to Fly" to "Drag the Lake Charlie," the rhythm section locks its groove while the three guitarists serve up their characteristic blend of hard-rock riffs and bluesy, note-bending solos. Things don't slow down until Hood's "The Wig He Made Her Wear," a courtroom drama so tense it hardly qualifies as a breather (that comes on the next track, when bassist Shonna Tucker delivers her ballad "You Got Another").
Hearing the Truckers spin off a solid set of rock songs is a blast. It certainly doesn't hurt that, as a collection of songs, The Big To-Do may be the band's most consistent; there's not a single track that deserves to be skipped. On the other hand, some of the most accomplished songs on the album are also the longest. "The Flying Wallendas" and "The Wig He Made Her Wear" are excellent examples of what the Truckers can do with a bigger canvas, and given the space to stretch out a narrative and spin off a few long guitar solos. Significantly, both of those songs are penned and sung by Hood, and while he's certainly the band's best storyteller, he's never rocked out with as much confidence or charisma as Cooley. Where Cooley seems comfortable with The Big To-Do's faster pace, Hood's shorter numbers sound a bit clipped and generic.
But it's not just Hood who seems like a smaller-screen version of himself this time around. Ever since they broke through with 2001's Southern Rock Opera, the Truckers have thrived by making rock music with epic proportions. That cinematic sensibility was both the best and worst thing about their last effort, Brighter Than Creation's Dark: Its 19 tracks contained a fair amount of filler but, by my count, six instant classics as good as anything in the band's catalogue.
The Big To-Do suffers from the opposite problem, with its workmanlike consistency belying its lack of truly astonishing highs. I'd nominate Cooley's "Birthday Boy" and "Get Downtown," along with Hood's "The Fourth Night of My Drinking," for a best-of comp, but almost everything else is second-tier. When you're talking about a band as good as the Truckers, second-tier material still ends up being highly enjoyable; it's only when compared to what the band can do at the height of their powers that the songs here appear less fully-realized. The fact that a perfectly good album can disappoint simply by failing to be great is what makes contending for the role of Best Rock Band in America, to borrow the title of Trucker's 2006 release, a blessing and a curse.