You don't need a bottle of Jack or even a trace of Southern lineage to appreciate the genius of Drive-By Truckers' Southern Rock Opera. Without a hint of irony, the Athens, Georgia, quintet creates a fast-driving, hard-living tribute to the indelible music and legacy of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Like any good concept album, there's a modicum of plot and a theme to these 20 songs (loosely based around the rise and fall of fictitious Southern rock band Betamax Guillotine), but the best tracks make you forget the story line altogether: "Birmingham," "Zip City," and "Let There Be Rock." The "opera" aspects bog things down a bit--you probably only need to hear the spoken-word track "The Three Great Alabama Icons" once--but the overall concept still comes off without a hitch. The lyrics are great, the trio of electric guitars is blessed with raw production, and the tunes--though lacking the pop sensibility of, say, "Gimme Three Steps"--will have you cranking up the album for your friends. And, after a few spins of Southern Rock Opera, you might even find yourself digging out those old Skynyrd LPs to hear the real thing again. --Jason Verlinde
Review by Hal Horowitz
Don't be deterred by the rather misleading title. Not a rock opera in the sense of Tommy or Jesus Christ Superstar, this sprawling double disc is more akin to a song cycle about Southern rock, in particular Lynyrd Skynyrd. Almost six years in the making, the Drive-By Truckers have created a startlingly intelligent work that proudly stands with the best music of their obvious inspiration. Largely written and conceived by lead trucker Patterson Hood (son of famed Muscle Shoals bassist David Hood), who sings the majority of the songs in a torn, ragged, but emotionally charged twangy voice somewhere between Tom Petty and Rod Stewart, these 20 literate tracks encapsulate a remarkably objective look at what Hood calls "the duality of the South." Rocking with a lean hardness, the story unfolds over 90 minutes, but the savvy lyrical observations never overburden the songs' clenched grip. While bands like the similarly styled Bottle Rockets have worked this territory before, never has a group created an opus that's thematically tied to this genre while objectively exploring its conceptual limitations. The two discs are divided into Acts I and II; the first sets the stage by exploring aspects of an unnamed Southern teen's background growing up as a music fan in an environment where sports stars, not rock stars, were idolized. The second follows him as he joins his Skynyrd-styled dream band, tours the world, and eventually crashes to his death in the same sort of airplane accident that claimed his heroes. The Drive-By Truckers proudly charge through these songs with their three guitars, grinding and soloing with a swampy intensity recalling a grittier, less commercially viable early version of Skynyrd. A potentially dodgy concept that's redeemed by magnificent songwriting, passionate singing, and ruggedly confident but far from over-the-top playing, Southern Rock Opera should be required listening not only for fans of the genre, but anyone interested in the history of '70s rock, or even the history of the South in that decade. More the story of Hood than Skynyrd, this is thought-provoking music that also slashes, burns, and kicks out the jams. Its narrative comes to life through these songs of alienation, excess, and, ultimately, salvation, as seen through the eyes of someone who lived and understands it better than most.