By Allison Stewart
The Drive-by Truckers used to specialize in tangly, high-concept Southern rock operas, the best of which was a 2001 two-disc Lynyrd Skynyrd allegory actually called "Southern Rock Opera," lest anybody miss the point. Stretched out over the course of several releases, the band's formula eventually collapsed under its own weight. On 2008's "Brighter Than Creation's Dark," the Truckers, buffeted by lineup changes, their blueprint fraying, sounded exhausted, trapped.
Their new disc, the brawny, no-concept "The Big To-Do," is a big, stomping, thoroughly lovable rawk album that tackles the band's usual subject matter (unlucky and frequently murderous Southerners) without sounding as if it has too much on its mind. Dark and nervy and as basic as air, it's the sound of the band reining itself in.
(Similar themes, revitalized sound, after the jump.)
The Truckers are as fond as ever of metaphor, literary allusion and keen-eyed, overstuffed barroom rock: Frontmen Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley may write some of the smartest barnburners ever made. Murder ballads, such as the cheery "Drag the Lake Charlie," abound; "Birthday Boy" is the empathetic story of a small-town stripper; "After the Scene Dies" describes a rock club that "becomes an Old Navy."
"The Wig He Made Her Wear," one of many bluesy ballads, tells the tale of a preacher's wife who kills her domineering husband. "I ain't judging either way," says Cooley, who proceeds to spin a tale of Amber Alerts and courtroom theatrics so real it might have sprung, fully formed, from an episode of "Nancy Grace." On a Truckers album, even the slow songs have sharp elbows.
Drive-by Truckers play the Recher Theatre in Towson, Md., on April 14.
Recommended tracks: "The Flying Wallendas," "Birthday Boy," "Santa Fe"