The New OK

Drive-By Truckers

ATO Records, 2020

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


“Goons with guns coming out to play / It’s a battle for the very soul of the USA”
--“The New OK” by Patterson Hood / Drive-By Truckers

The Drive-By Truckers were two songs into soundcheck at an Indianapolis club on March 12 when they learned that the rest of the tour they’d planned in support of their January album release The Unraveling was postponed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “We packed up the trailer and headed home, where we’ve pretty much been ever since,” writes co-founder and chief songwriter Patterson Hood in the typically forthright liner notes of The New OK, the group’s second album of 2020.

Stuck at home, Hood did what born performers do when cut off from the adrenalin feedback loop of making music live on stage: stewed, moped, fumed, apologized to his family (as chronicled in said liner notes)—and wrote more songs. As it happened, the band had already been envisioning an EP made up of several songs left over from the 2018 Memphis sessions that produced The Unraveling. After Hood composed a pair of powerful new songs charting life in America in 2020, the band elected to record the new tunes remotely, and turn the planned EP into their second full album release of 2020.

The New OK comprises the third act of what’s now a trilogy of overtly political albums begun with 2016’s American Band. As pointed and hard-hitting as either of its predecessors, it’s ever so slightly more optimistic in its assessment of where the darkness and chaos described on The Unraveling may be leading. We’ll have to wait and see, but in the meantime, what’s clear is that the band—Hood (guitars & vocals), co-founder Mike Cooley (guitars & vocals), Brad Morgan (drums), Jay Gonzalez (keys & guitars), and Matt Patton (bass & vocals)—has never sounded more driven and determined.

The leadoff title track is also the newest of the bunch, composed in late July, a Neil Young and Crazy Horse-flavored loping anthem that speaks directly to events in Alabama-raised Hood’s new hometown of Portland, Oregon: “Summer in Portland, everything’s fine / Black Lives Matter holding up the line / We got mommies and vets taking fire / From the cops on the beat and the occupiers.” Lyrics that topical can age a song quickly if the music isn’t at least as strong; fortunately, “The New OK” is as tuneful as DBT gets, powered by warm reverbed guitar and steady propulsion from the rhythm section.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The other new cut, “Watching The Orange Clouds,” offers echoes of classic CSNY, leading with acoustic rhythm guitar and gentle, resonant vocals as Hood delivers a firsthand account of the protests that followed George Floyd’s murder. Ultimately it’s a song about looking for solutions: “Sure wish I could get some sleep / Just didn’t realize this bottom is so damned deep / Hoping one day we’ll rise and move on to some better place.” As the song builds, a haunted, otherworldly synth enters and winds its way to the heart of the arrangement, an alien sound that only accentuates the sense of disorientation.

In between these two newer tunes, you get something of a hodgepodge of sounds and themes. “Tough To Let Go” and “Sea Island Lonely” range farthest afield from standard DBT fare, the former a Hammond-drenched blues ballad and the latter a swinging Muscle Shoals-flavored slice of r&b, both lit up by a fat horn section. More in sync with the rest of the album are “The Unraveling” and “This Perilous Night” (from Hood) and “Sarah’s Flame” (from Cooley). “The Unraveling” is a big, echoey, menacing number about a person, and country, going off the rails, with bassist Matt Patton enlisted to handle lead vocals.

“This Perilous Night” is a grooving rocker that Hood says he started on Election Eve 2016 and finished the night of the Charlottesville march in 2017; unsurprisingly, he holds nothing back: “Dumb, white and angry with their cup half-filled / Running over people down in Charlottesville / White House Fury, it’s the killing side, he defends… Fourth Reich in khakis is beckoning / Both ends burning to the reckoning.” Cooley’s lounge-y blues rocker “Sarah’s Flame” follows, offering sarcastic recognition to Sarah Palin for fueling the movement that culminated in Trump’s victory and the Charlottesville march (“She had them hearing old Dixie driven down in every note of Barry’s baritone… She made it look so easy all Fat Donnie had to do was wear the pants / What’s a girl got to do to get a little bit of credit in a place like this?”).

“The Distance” shares the rather haunted Southern rock feel of the above tunes, but instead of politics or current events, it’s a fairly standard road song about traveling “all across this land in our Econoline van.” Following the foreboding “Watching The Orange Clouds,” the album closes on a raucous note with the first studio recording of one of DBT’s favorite concert covers—The Ramones’ “The KKK Took My Baby Away”—on which Patton again takes the lead vocal for a suitably bludgeoning take.

“And I wonder if the life we lived will be around when the weight is lifted / Off the ground when the plates have shifted and the whole thing’s burning down / Will we rise up from where we’re planted with our fists up to the sun? / Or will we settle for tear gassed eyes staring down the gun?” sings Hood in “The New OK,” and while the answer to his questions isn’t yet clear, the Drive-By Truckers have rededicated themselves to making art that reflects, magnifies, and tries to help us process the unprecedented moment that we’re in, as an electorate and as a nation. If you’d prefer that musicians “shut up and sing” you’d best keep well clear of The New OK—but if you do, you’ll miss out on some damned fine music.

Rating: B+

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