Alt-Country is made up of the indie rockers who have figured out what country has known for ages — the power of a whiny slide guitar. The Drive-By Truckers are one of the bands that tend less toward alt and more toward country, stirring distinct memories of a pre-“Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” Wilco. One could lump their straight drumbeats and distorted 1-4-5 progressions in with aviatored Southern rockers like Lynyrd Skynyrd, but their more off-beat lyrics and self-conscious instrumentation bring in some of that urban, Ryan Adams and Wilco cool.
Their recent release, “A Blessing and a Curse,” leaves the listener with a feeling similar to the one they got from Lynyrd — one or two memorable songs in the midst of a solid and effective effort. “A Blessing and a Curse” doesn’t aim too high, but knows what it is and does its job well.
The first 10 seconds of the album are nothing but bass drum, and when the distorted slide comes in, The Truckers have made their mission clear. “Feb 14” delivers its share of angst, but with those drums cooking it never tries to force that sentiment upon the listener. The song is a smooth arrangement (replete with barbed-wire solos) that you can slap on in the car as you leave her and never look back. Similarly, “Gravity’s Gone” opens with just a hint of slowed-down grief that is reflected in the depressed lyrics, but the guitar riffs and the Southern baritone turn an emo weenie into a badass rambler in no time.
While Southern rock espouses a serious attitude about its consistent style, alt-country recognizes the hillbilly connotations its arrangements have with its hipster audience, and it works with the inherent fun behind that. Case in point — fans of the Will Ferrell prescription for a fever will be well placated on a couple of these tracks. “Aftermath USA” sounds like an homage to the Lynyrd classic “That Smell,” but unlike “That Smell,” “Aftermath USA” goes far enough over the top to become ridiculous fun instead of a grave moan. High-pitched and whimsical vocals serve to further distance the Truckers from more self-indulgent Southern rock. Similarly, “Wednesday” is nothing but driving excitement with smirking references to cat shit.
“A Blessing and a Curse” strays a bit farther from Southern rock than their previous works. The singer rasps less, and gone are simpler songs like “Buttholeville” and “Carl Perkin’s Cadillac.” The musical ideas and sentiments behind songs like “Wednesday” and “Aftermath USA” are more nuanced, and they seem to be moving toward Wilco’s brand of country — playfully aware of its own stigma. It’s still for the most part harder than Wilco, but indie rock influences are more prevalent on this album than 2005’s “Gangstabilly.” Ultimately, many of the tracks feel more appealing to the hipster market.
But this isn’t to say that the Drive by Truckers don’t love country music, and aren’t making genuinely good music in its own right. “Little Bonnie” — a tribute to classic girl-death folk songs like “Little Sadie” and “Omie Wise” — features a haunting if traditional chord progression that successfully employs a classic bluegrass technique: simple, persistent and forceful arrangements against a mournful theme. The second half of the album tends to these slower tracks, and “Space City” is another undemanding acoustic folk song in the Shawn Mullins tradition. The Truckers break with alt country pedagogy with these songs. Even older Ryan Adams, such as the accomplished “Heartbreaker,” never quite commits to such an unadorned and unashamed country sound. These songs are more akin to the Truckers’ older, less self-referential works without sticking to the hard rock paradigm.
The song “A Blessing and a Curse” deserves mention as a successful blend of the first half of the albums rocking and the second half’s respect for country. Featuring a first-class riff that just swings in and out of the song, “A Blessing and a Curse” finds a nice place between the positive energy of this riff with some of the earlier chord progressions and later Skynyrd-style screaming guitar with a creepy chorus. Evocative of its title, “A Blessing and a Curse” moves between aggressive chords, Wilco-esque vocals and morphing undertones to bring a simultaneous feeling of hope and despair.
The album plays with this idea of fun versus grave and genuine Southern rock versus self-conscious indie rock. More importantly, no matter which one of these concepts is prevalent, the songs are all accessible, straightforward and unpretentious. “A Blessing and a Curse” is not particularly distinguished, but it has some great moments, never lags and never fails to please.