Since 2008's magnificent Brighter Than Creation's Dark, Drive-By Truckers have released both a live album and a catch-up compilation of B-sides and outtakes, and continued their occasional alliances with soul legends by playing Booker T's back-up band on his Grammy-winning Potato Hole album. In other words, all the kinds of diversionary tactics usually practiced by bands short of new material.
Nothing, however, could be further from the truth: The Big To Do is well up to their usual standard, and it's soon to be followed, they claim, by their "R&B Murder Ballad Album" Go Go Boots, which sounds like it could be even better. As before, The Big To Do is stuffed with literate storytelling songs situated in the band's native Deep South milieu, delivered in sometimes brutally authentic voices. "Birthday Boy", for instance, opens with the great line, "'Which one's the birthday boy?' she said, 'I ain't got all night'" – a handful of words evoking all the sleazy shame of an adolescent "celebration" with cheap booze and hookers. Sometimes, songwriter Patterson Hood needs only the right title to bring an entire world to life – as with "This Fucking Job", a bilious rant against a system that forces the protagonist's family to "live on fast-food wages".
But the lives depicted in Hood's songs are not just the clichéd underclass complaints of some pious, protesting folkie; instead, a vein of droll, trailer-trash graveyard humour and unforeseen twists makes songs like "Drag The Lake Charlie" and "The Wig He Made Her Wear" the musical equivalents to My Name Is Earl. In the former, two sad-sack cops searching for missing low life Lester hope they find him drowned, as they don't want to face the wrath of his wife Wanda if he turns up drunk in town again; while in "The Wig He Made Her Wear", Hood relates the true story of a wife who murders her churchgoing, pillar-of-the-community husband, but gets a short sentence for voluntary manslaughter by claiming his imposition of depraved sexual demands as extenuation, including the high heels and wig he forced her to wear. Upon her re-emergence from jail, however, she's observed still wearing them.
Elsewhere, "Get Downtown" is a big-hat, honky-tonk number, in which a wife turfs out the jobless couch-spud husband "uglying up the house", with brusque instructions to find himself a wage. Musically, it's the exception on The Big To Do, for which the Truckers have reverted to something close to the big rock sound of their 2002 classic Southern Rock Opera, with waspish slide-guitar and organ fattening up the monster guitar riffs, and plaintive harmonies punctuating Hood's drawled tales from life's other side.
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