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Saturday, April 05, 2008

Southern Music Review

Maybe it's just coincidence, but all the records I've been listening to lately are "southern." It started with Band of Horses' Cease to Begin, which I squeezed onto my year end list tied for #10, but which I'd put much higher were I writing that list now. Swirling guitars reminiscent of Built to Spill mixed with jammy Southern alt rock soul a la My Morning Jacket--maybe the best band in America these days--give BOH a really inviting sound. The college stations down here gobble those tunes like candy.

Somehow I also stumbled on an amazing album that I managed to miss when it came out in 2006, Cat Power's The Greatest. CP, aka Chan Marshall, left her native Georgia for NYC long ago, but this record is pure Memphis soul circa 1966, so we'll send her a jug of sweet tea and an honorary subscription to Oxford American to seal her as a Dixie debutante, albeit one who has "lived in bars and danced on tables." There's something timeless about songs like "Living Proof," "Could We," and "After It All." Even the oldsters who read this blog couldn't resist them.

No band has better "southern" cred, however, than Drive By Truckers. They started getting notice after 2001's Southern Rock Opera, a double-CD "concept album" about growing up in Alabama and worshiping Lynyrd Skynyrd. The opening song was a spoken word horror story about a crashed car, two dead lovers, and "Free Bird" still playing on the stereo when the cops arrive: "It's a very long song." They also mixed in tunes about Bear Bryant, and about the Devil throwing an honorary barbecue to celebrate the arrival of fellow southerner George Wallace. Both rockers and down home documentarians, DBT always give you a great sense of place and purpose. The new record, Brighter Than Creation's Dark, stands with their best work. Titles like "You And Your Crystal Meth," "Daddy Needs a Drink," and "That Man I Shot" (about the Iraq War) suggest the Truckers' thematic bent toward the blacker corners of rural working class life. My favorite's gotta be the opener, "Two Daughters And a Beautiful Wife." As Charlene Darling used to say on Andy Griffith, "Don't play it, Daddy, that'un makes me cry."

But the best news in southern rock? REM is back. And they are better than ever. Released on Tuesday, Accelerate has been getting monster reviews (actually, better than Monster reviews). If anything, they understate how good this record is. It is easily REM's best since Automatic For the People in 1992. Also, it rocks. Probably the purest rock and roll record they've ever made, with the possible exceptions of Document (1987) and Life's Rich Pageant (1986)--long my favorite. Accelerate harks back to that late 1980s heyday, for which I have special affection since it was the soundtrack to my early college years. I'll always remember "Swan Swan H" crackling on the stereo of my old Honda the first time I drove off for school on my own. The new disc kicks you in the ass from the first spin and only lets up for air once or twice in the middle. After REM's last three efforts--Up (1998), Reveal (2001) and Around the Sun (2004), all of which were slow and unsatisfying despite patches of the old brilliance--a lot of us had given up on REM ever getting their grove back from losing drummer Bill Berry to aneurysm and retirement. Well, something changed. Peter Buck hasn't played with this much energy and Michael Stipe hasn't sung with this much fire in ages. I know that over at Second Americano, U2 is da bomb, but REM have always been my Beatles. This is their Revolver.


At 7:04 AM, Blogger fronesis said...

Wow. Wow! You can't imagine how excited I am to go buy the REM album. I still place Automatic on my top 10 list, and love all their old stuff. But I just couldn't make it through most of their recent work. This new one sounds fantastic.

Oh, and call it serendipity or whatever, but I only recently discovered Drive By Truckers, and I think Southern Rock Opera is a work of genius. The three southern icons taught me more about George Wallace than I ever knew before. And you quoted my favourite line: 'it's a very long song'.

Thanks, tmcd.

At 10:33 AM, Blogger tenaciousmcd said...

Fro, I hope you like the REM. It opens really strong with "Living Well Is the Best Revenge" and "Man-Sized Wreath" (maybe my favorite tune here), and then closes on fire with "Horse to Water" and "I'm Gonna DJ (At the End of the World!)" For me, it is a fantastic driving down the road CD. It lacks the sonic nuance of Automatic and the poignancy of Out of Time or Reckoning. But it is a real return to form nonetheless. In retrospect, REM seem to have gone into a psychic depression right around 1998 (much like the US itself), and now they're ready to throw a rave on Bush's grave. Natch, lots of "political" songs (e.g., "Houston").

DBT are really quite a band. We saw them play in a bar in East Nashville back in 2001, and it was one of the best shows I've ever seen. Also, the TV above the bar was showing the movie "Tremors" while they played, and so I'll always associate them with giant worms and a shotgun-wielding Kevin Bacon.


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