After 2008’s somewhat overstuffed Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, pre-eminent Southern rockers Drive-By Truckers have scaled back a little for The Big To-Do, a more concise distillation of the band’s signature mix of country, hard rock and a bit of Southern soul. The songs might be a little more straightforward and rock a little harder, but the overall formula doesn’t change—as it shouldn’t. Head Trucker Patterson Hood is a genius at crafting perfectly observed narratives about murder and desperation, and he does so again here with songs like “Drag the Lake Charlie” and “The Fourth Night of My Drinking,” which paint such clear lyrical pictures that they might as well be short films.
Comrades Mike Cooley and Shonna Tucker contribute a little less here than they did on Dark, but they make the most of their spotlights: Cooley’s “Birthday Boy” is a wonderfully wry character study about a stripper, and Tucker’s “(It’s Gonna Be) I Told You So,” the country-est song on the album, has a nice Emmylou Harris-in-the-’70s feel to it. Hood can get overly ambitious on wanderers like “The Wig He Made Her Wear” and “The Flying Wallendas” (which are still often captivating), so the changes of pace are welcome.
At this point, the Truckers have nothing left to prove, but To-Do proves it anyway: No other band is this adept at synthesizing the sounds and stories of the American South into consistently rewarding music.