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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Drive-By Truckers -- Southern Rock Opera


Southern Rock Opera marks the moment that Drive-By Truckers became the rock-and-roll chroniclers of The South. The more jokey songs of the past and the dominant influence of country music upon their sound vanish here. Not to say that the band lose their sense of humor--it's still one of the greatest weapons in their arsenal. A twinge of country still pops up from time to time, too, but it is more like a refreshing breeze than a direction changing wind.
Southern Rock Opera is a concept album about growing up in and the contradictions of the South, filtered through the legend of Lynyrd Skynyrd and their career ending plane crash. The Truckers weave together stories about their own band, characters and stories of their own invention, Southern history, and the history of  Skynyrd, including the unexpected friendship of Skynyrd's frontman Ronnie Van Sant with Neil Young, to somehow create a unified whole.
If that sounds like a lot, it is. This album takes a very long time to digest. It is 94-minutes long, movie length, and it plays out cinematically. Southern Rock Opera is not difficult to comprehend, though. Frontman/guitarist Patterson Hood's history lesson, "The Three Great Alabama Icons," discusses many of Southern Rock Opera's themes, and Hood's conversational tone (this and a couple of the other songs on the album are spoken word) is emotionally backed by his band.

Crashes and accidents are a major theme in Southern Rock Opera. Often they stand as a metaphor for a failed attempt to escape, whether it's one's demons, one's past, the South itself, or all of the above. "Plastic Flowers on the Highway," is a great exploration of these issues by Hood, who handles the lion's share of the material, though Mike Cooley (guitar) adds five of his own, and Rob Malone (guitar--YES, THREE GUITARISTS!!!) two.

While Skynyrd's story tangles throughout the album, the final five tracks are completely dedicated to that band's final days (at least in their original iteration), and the plane crash that killed Van Zant and several other members. The haunting coda, "Angels and Fuselage" attempts to imagine Van Zant's final moments as the plane goes down. Skeletal chords and earthly low bass and drums build up the tension of oncoming death. The sudden, brief appearance of a Neil Young-esque harmonica early in the song almost sounds like Van Zant's old buddy somehow comforting him in his final moments. Angelic female singing in the distance seems to be beckoning Van Zant home. My favorite element of the song is a piano which creeps up with stunning finality over the closing minutes of the album. It seems to embody death itself, inexorably taking Van Zant's hand, leading his spirit under.

And with the close of Southern Rock Opera, it is clear that Drive-By Truckers are now on another level, defiant, and ready for a fight.

2001 Soul Dump Records
Act One
1. Days of Graduation 2:36
2. Ronnie and Neil 4:52
3. 72 (This Highway's Mean) 5:26
4. Dead, Drunk, and Naked 4:51
5. Guitar Man Upstairs 3:17
6. Birmingham 5:03
7. The Southern Thing 5:08
8. The Three Great Alabama Icons 6:51
9. Wallace 3:27
10. Zip City 5:16
11. Moved 4:17

Act Two
1. Let There Be Rock 4:19
2. Road Cases 2:42
3. Women Without Whiskey 4:19
4. Plastic Flowers on the Highway 5:04
5. Cassie's Brother 4:58
6. Life in the Factory 5:28
7. Shut Up and Get on the Plane 3:38
8. Greenville to Baton Rouge 4:11
9. Angels and Fuselage 8:00

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