DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS – American Band (ATO): Mike Cooley’s distillation in album-opener “Ramon Casiano” of the paranoia afflicting a sizable chunk of conservative white male America is so apt it’s better to let the man speak for himself: “He had the makings of a leader of a certain kind of men / Who need to feel the world’s against him, out to get him if it can / Men whose triggers pull their fingers, men who’d rather fight than win / United in a revolution, like in mind and like in skin.” Turns out the real-life Casiano was killed by Harlon Carter, whose second-degree murder conviction was commuted and so served no time, and who went on to be a prominent player in the mass-deportation effort named “Operation Wetback” and leader of the NRA. Fate is ironic if not exactly funny.
And in no less than three songs do these Southern boogie-rockers—who can balance a love for the American South with a healthy skepticism and hypocrisy-shaming that, believe me, is not easy to do—bring up violence against minorities: once in the penultimate “Once They Banned Imagine,” referring to John Lennon’s vision of imaginary utopia (redundant, I know, but needs to be said) when Cooley grumbles in subtle fury about the “half cocked excuses for bullet abuse regarding anything browner than tan,” and another in the track before, “What It Means,” where Patterson Hood’s lamentation of the decisions rendered regarding George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson is a frustrated howl of anguish.
Part of what makes Drive-By Truckers so great is that their condemnations and criticisms never feel like pious pronunciations delivered from a stereotypically liberal holier-than-thou soapbox; instead they sound like remarkably non-cynical, faithful believers in church whose ears perk up when the reverend says something too screwy for them to jump on board with, and they clench their fists and grit their teeth when they look around to find their fellow parishioners lapping it up without reflection. They got no time for religious leaders and news pundits who in their expensive suits are privileged enough to throw “daily syndicated hissy fits” or call those who take their own lives “cowards.”
So as someone who until the insanity unleashed over the last year was more or less optimistic that things would ultimately wind up moving in a positive way, I needed this album in my life. It articulates in easy-to-swallow arguments some of what’s wrong, but it also isn’t as judgmental as I know I can be and shouldn’t be. It remains hopeful while casting out naivete. It is remarkable cool in a moment of thoughtless belligerence. And one more note: American Band is the first album since Southern Rock Opera that hasn’t hosted cartoonish album art, instead featuring a black-and-white photo of an American flag flying on a boat at half-mast. What it means? There are things to mourn, sure, but there’s work to be done, “no nobler cause in our lifetime for setting our sails to the wind.” A