Now Hear This: Drive-By Truckers Flash their Roots

Different types of music and different bands often work well against different seasonal backdrops. There's something alternately brooding and rocking about the first two bands we'll feature this week, which makes them terrific listening during this eternal winter.

The stripped-down roots of Drive-By Truckers' alt-country sound are on full display throughout English Oceans, making the band's latest efforts awesome for humming along icy I-90 in your Honda Civic. Heavy-hitters dot the album, to be sure, but it's the more contemplative tunes like "When He's Gone" and "Primer Coat" that really showcase the band's songwriting talents these days.

It's the band's first album since 2011's Go-Go Boots. The gap between those two albums is the longest in the Truckers' history.

"I had time to write," Mike Cooley says. "After we came off the road last time, we decided we were going to let it rest for a while. So I had time to really focus. I kind of had to re-learn how to write, because I didn't write as many songs as I'd wanted on the last couple of records. I was happy with these songs, and thrilled to go in and record so many that I felt real strongly about."

Hyped for some time now among the slightly psychedelic reaches of the indie crowd, the new Real Estate album lives up to gentle promises.

Of note is the fact that the band recorded the whole thing in Wilco's Chicago studio. They worked with house engineer Tom Schick, and the lo-fi inspirations of various points along the Wilco's history show up throughout Atlas. Here's an illustrative quote from Alex Bleeker (via Relix) about the time in Wilcoland: "In addition to all being Wilco fans as kids, the cool thing is you can work on their gear. Jeff has literally hundreds of guitars. It's a magical place. You don't get that kind of thing in a New York studio. There, you just pay for room and console." Sounds lovely.

Atlas achieves a laid-back clarity for a band that has spent quite awhile dancing among more upbeat melodies. This album is at times a darker affair. For fans who have been steadily growing up with the band, Real Estate's 2009 debut represents the fun-loving honeymoon period. These days, we're all a bit more introspective. Through jangly, sweeping chord progressions, Atlas helps us along.

At the Academy Awards on Sunday night, Pharrell Williams brought joy to the crowd with his Oscar-nominated tune "Happy," from Despicable Me 2. With his massive hat and guest role in last year's "Blurred Lines," Pharrell has cropped up in headlines often lately. Was the last time he attained these heights in the media when he crooned alongside Snoop Dogg in "Drop It Like It's Hot"? Who knows; he's here now.

G I R L dishes up much of the sugary pop we've heard from Pharrell lately. It's never clear how to differentiate albums like this. Is it qualitatively distinct from, say, Justin Timberlake's stuff? Interestingly, Timberlake shows up on one track here, so perhaps there's the answer.

Lastly, the remaster of Dr. John's seminal Gris-Gris and Professor Longhair's live triumph The Last Mardi Gras dropped this week. Each are worth multiple listens, if only to break up the Fat Tuesday haze surely still wrecking your head today. "Gris-gris gumbo ya ya," indeed.

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Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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