Having already staked their claim as one of America’s finest and hardest working bands, Drive-By Truckers offers their growing fanbase a second stopgap album release in 2009. On the heels of Live from Austin, TX comes The Fine Print (A Collection of Oddities and Rarities 2003 - 2008), a collection of odds and ends the band has compiled between the five-year period that stands as the busiest and most artistically satisfying of their career. While it isn’t exactly fair to have high expectations for a collection of covers, b-sides, and alternate takes of album tracks, that Fine Print sounds exactly like what it is—a set of songs not worthy of making it onto the band’s proper studio albums—ultimately says more about the depth and quality of the Truckers’s catalogue than it does about this particular set.
On its own merits, the cover of Tom T. Hall’s terrific “Mama Bake a Pie (Daddy Kill a Chicken)” is as relevant and timely as anything the band has released, while Jason Isbell’s “When the Well Runs Dry” reaffirms what a distinctive, compelling songwriting voice he developed during his tenure with the band. But his “TVA,” despite one of his trademark Southern gothic narratives, is bloated at nearly seven minutes, and “The Great Car Dealer War,” which he wrote with the other members of the band, simply never reaches the same scope of the Truckers’s best songs. Even less satisfying are “George Jones Talkin’ Cell Phone Blues,” a not altogether reverent tribute to Jones as inspired by a cellphone-induced car accident, and the holiday-themed “Mrs. Claus’ Kimono.” While neither is as repellant a song as “Bob” from Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, both serve as reminders that novelty songs are one of the few things the Drive-By Truckers don’t do well.
Their ability to edit their material into thematically powerful statements is one of the band’s strengths, which makes the scattershot, uneven approach of Fine Print all the more out-of-character. For every song that’s serviceable (the version of “Uncle Frank” here saves a pretty good song from the band’s flawed debut record, and Mike Cooley’s “Little Pony and the Great Big Horse” would have fit well on The Dirty South), there is at least one that badly misses its mark. The closing cover of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” would be nearly unlistenable if not for Cooley’s verse at the mic, since neither Patterson Hood nor Shonna Tucker, whose absence through much of the record is regrettable, carry their verses. There simply isn’t anything here that speaks to what has made Drive-By Truckers one of the smartest, most nuanced acts of the last decade, and there certainly isn’t anything here that’s essential listening. Those in need of a Truckers (or former Truckers) fix would be far better served by picking up Hood’s Murdering Oscar (And Other Love Songs) or Isbell’s phenomenal, unjustly slept-on Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit.