BY STEVE KLINGE
Let us now sing the praises of Mike Cooley. Although the Drive-By Truckers are blessed with a dual songwriting force between Cooley and Patterson Hood, and doubly blessed by their dueling guitars that anchor epic, alcohol-fueled live shows, Cooley can sometimes seem to be Hood’s foil; that was true, too, when the band included additional songwriters in Jason Isbell and / or Shonna Tucker. Hood plays the role of the band’s spokesperson, the one who articulates its vision of southern rock. Live, the Truckers’ setlist traditionally alternates between Hood and Cooley songs, but the albums tip Hood’s way. Cooley only placed three songs on the last DBT’s record, the soulful and uncharacteristically restrained (and excellent) Go-Go Boots, but he’s in full-force on English Oceans, penning six of the album’s thirteen songs, and they’re doozies.
Both Hood and Cooley write character sketches of struggling or unsavory men and women. Cooley’s tend to go deeper into disillusionment and failure; they end in resignation or futility whereas Hood’s often end (or sometimes begin) in violent outbursts. Cooley’s “Shit Shots Count” opens the album with scenes of a hapless and unfulfilling weekend night around a barroom pool table. There’s marital and familial troubles in “Primer Coat” and “Hearing Jimmy Loud.” “Sometimes it’s as cold as a loveless embrace / Or hot like a low seething rage,” he sings in “Natural Light,” and those emotions are Truckers’ keynotes. Cooley’s singing has never been stronger: his deep voice can be empathetic or sardonic; he’s a casual but commanding vocalist, but he’s also great with the pure rock and roll songs. In a first for the DBT’s, Cooley sings one of Hood’s songs, “Til He’s Dead or Rises,” and it’s one of English Oceans’ highlights.
All this talk of Cooley is meant as no disrespect to Patterson Hood, whose songs about conflicted characters match Cooley’s for their empathy, concreteness and depth. “She can’t stand to have him around but she always misses him when he’s gone,” Hood sings in “When He’s Gone.” Hood’s protagonists can be more extreme: the arsonist in “When Walter Went Crazy,” the “piece of work, more or less a total jerk” of “The Part of Him.”
The Drive-By Truckers have always been a meat-and-potatoes kinda band: they do what they do well, and they’ve kept on doing it. There’s great virtue in that: they’ve created a complex and detailed world, and English Oceans adds more memorable characters to it. The southern soul elements of Go-Go Boots get set aside for the rock and roll that we’ve come to expect from them, although maybe toned down one notch from the rave-ups of their early days. The Truckers retrench on English Oceans. It’s their first album since bassist Tucker left (former Dexateen Matt Patton replaces her), and, aside from the proliferation of Cooley songs, it won’t surprise fans. But it will please them: these songs and stories slip under your skin.
Consumer note: in addition to being released on CD and 2LP vinyl, there’s also a limited-to-750 copies, hand-numbered/blue vinyl 2LP “bootleg” edition available. See image, below.
DOWNLOAD: “Til He’s Dead Or Rises,” “Primer Coat,” “Grand Canyon”