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Southern Comfort

Drive-By Truckers
Decoration Day (New West)

If you’re among the uninitiated, consider track no. 3, “Hell No, I Ain’t Happy,” your admission ticket to the world of Drive-By Truckers. The song starts with the icy-wet crack of a beer can, and then a hot rash of guitars so ominous they’d send Crazy Horse running for their polite canyon homes. The final straw is Patterson Hood’s fever blister of a voice (once perfectly described as “Don Henley with a throat full of hot gravel”), which flat-out spews, “There’s a lot of bad wood underneath the veneer!” This is, how you say, a metaphor—and a mighty sinister one at that—that applies more to the singer’s state of mind than to the porch out front.

Somewhere around the ’90s, Drive-By Truckers were a mediocre roots-rock band in the mediocre vein of the Bottle Rockets. Their paradigm shift came with Southern Rock Opera, a two-CD song cycle based loosely (very loosely) around the legend of Lynyrd Skynyrd. The album found them embracing their Alabama roots (the positive/negative duality of the “Southern thing”) and ditching any lingering desire to be Yankee punk rockers. If sometimes contrived (especially in spoken-word places), it was one of few recent attempts to take the rusticus genericus genre in an interesting direction. This wasn’t Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, but Car Wheels Peeling up to the Front Door, Mind Squirming.

The sheer audacity of the move garnered heaps of press. So how does a group follow the bombast of Southern Rock Opera? With an even better collection of songs, opera not included. Somewhere along the line the group also learned to play, and Decoration Day finds them moving into ever subtler, occasionally acoustic regions where the devil’s in the details (“Something ’bout the wrinkle in your forehead tells me there’s a fit ’bout to get thrown”). “Sink Hole” refers to the place where the banker with foreclosure on his mind is going to end up if he sets one foot on the multigenerational farm. The instructional “Outfit” has “anthem” written all over it (“Don’t call what you’re wearing an outfit,” etc.), while the passive voice in “My Sweet Annette” (“My Sweet Annette was left standing at the altar”) indicates that the singer feels bad enough about it to write this song, but is still a bit in denial. But there’s nothing lunkheaded about Decoration Day: just more human complexity than Faulkner’s Snopes clan—and real prettiness too.

—Erik Hage

Eamonn Vitt
Deserted Music (Self-Starter Foundation)

With just nine songs in 30 minutes, Eamonn Vitt’s debut, Deserted Music, is a delightful rarity in this era of long-winded stuff-’em-because-you-can CD re-leases. Formerly a member of the Boston-based Karate, Vitt left that band in ’97 and relocated to New York City for the decidedly non-indie-rock undertaking of studying medicine at Columbia University. Continuing his musical pursuits, he reemerged as a solo act. The arrangements on Deserted Music vary from folklike quietude to full-blown pop smarts, occasionally even bordering on the cinematic (as on the desert hoedown “Left at Gallup”). His lyrics wed brief but sharply detailed poetic descriptions to a range of existential circumstances. Vitt sings with a friendly warmth, with his voice treated as one of the components in the music, moving in and out of the shadows rather than exclusively dominating the spotlight with music in the background. “Mixed Drinks” is the gorgeous and subtle centerpiece to the album, evoking surprisingly emotional responses through both words and sounds: Harmony vocals and layered guitars make for a tapestry that oozes sweet wistfulness while referencing metaphorical imbibing.

—David Greenberger

Warren Zevon
The Wind (Artemis)

Kicking against the pricks, raging against the dying of the light, Warren Zevon challenges death itself in The Wind, likely his last album. He protests, in the hard rocker “Disorder in the House”; he makes love, in “El Amor de mi Vida”; he perseveres, in “Rub Me Raw.” Above all, he prevails. Zevon was diagnosed with terminal cancer a year ago, so it’s impossible to listen to this without being moved by its subtext as the swan song of one of rock’s iconic mavericks, who made listening interactive and intelligent in the flouncy, sentimental ’70s with songs like “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” and “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” Songs just as memorable populate Zevon’s new album, recorded in haste and creativity last fall and winter after the 56-year-old Los Angeles singer-songwriter learned he had only months to live. He ain’t dead yet, and his friends help him keep the nail from the coffin here. An all-star cast helps out on one of Zevon’s best albums, but this isn’t about cameos. One could argue that for once, death obviates budget, allowing Zevon to enlist buddies Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, Emmylou Harris, Tom Petty and most of the Eagles. They play so well, the music is more party than funeral, and commerce doesn’t seem to figure. The Wind, which exemplifies bittersweet at its best, is about knocking on heaven’s door and being told to come on in. If you can listen to this without crying—and exulting—turn yourself in for a new model.

—Carlo Wolff

The Codetalkers with Col. Bruce Hampton
Self-titled (Harmonized)

For more than 30 years, Bruce Hampton has found surprising ways to inject his fractured surrealism into assorted musical enterprises. His reputation was built upon the Hampton Grease Band, a sprawling amalgam from Atlanta who created one of the most unexpected double albums to ever be brought forth by a major label (Columbia, in 1971). His projects since the ’80s have him as a team player more than a leader, first with the Late Bronze Age, followed by the Aquarium Rescue Unit, the Fiji Mariners, and now the Codetalkers. What they all have in common is a jam-band groove sensibility, drawing variously from rock, jazz, Latin, and country. This album rises and falls depending upon your attachment to such boogie variants. It truly rises when Hampton steps to the fore, which he does only occasionally, but does here closing the set with one of his stream-of-consciousness rambles, “Rice Clients.” I could use a whole disc of that talk, punctuated with his cackling laughter.

—David Greenberger


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