- SPIN Rating:9 of 10
Fashion trends notwithstanding, it's hard to picture Michael Stipe in a John Deere cap. R.E.M., those old con artists, were Southerners who stressed poetry and kudzu over regional pride, so they resonated with the indie-rock in-crowd as a rock band from the South, not a "Southern rock" band. Now that hipsters seeking new sources of grimy authenticity have "discovered" '70s artists like the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd, that distinction has blurred. But back then, Southern rock wasn't to be trusted--it was too backwoods for sophisticates, too jammy for punks, too redneck for the enlightened. A little too guilty of being white, or at least of whistling Dixie.
Patterson Hood of the Alabama band Drive-By Truckers has clearly thought a lot about these issues. The punk-rock son of a Muscle Shoals Sound Studios session bassist, Hood (and the Truckers) took a run at this conflict on 2001's Southern Rock Opera, a three-guitar, two-CD behemoth about the rise and crash of Skynyrd and "the duality of the Southern thang"--that is, what's a cracker to do if he loves Black Flag, Black Oak Arkansas, and black folks all the same? The Opera was willfully conflicted, self-consciously epic, nuanced, messy, and kinda brilliant. Touring behind it for almost a year apparently did a serious number on everyone in the band. Originally intended as a major-label debut for Lost Highway, Decoration Day is a raging, ragged Behind the Music--15 coal-black odes to the casualties that art leaves behind and that life can't avoid.
Hood and fellow songwriter Mike Cooley have grown into real pros: They write about tours that break up marriages without resorting to road-angst clichés ("Heathens," "Give Pretty Soon"). But the revelation here is 24-year-old newbie guitarist and songwriter Jason Isbell. On "Outfit," here counts advice his dad gave him about keepin' it real: "Don't call what you're wearing an outfit / Don't ever say your car is broke / Don't sing with a fake British accent / Don't act like your family's a joke." Written, no kidding, as a Father's Day gift, "Outfit" testifies to the parts of the Southern thang worth saving: honesty without irony, aspirations without bitterness, heritage without hate.
Tennessee's Kings of Leon are a good 15 years younger than the Truckers, and someday they may make an album that stares down doom and guilt as eloquently as Decoration Day. For now, these dirt-poor sons (and one cousin) of an itinerant Pentecostal preacher bash and pop like they've been rock stars for years (and since preacher's kids are the rock stars of the tent-revival scene, they kinda have). The Kings are probably sick of the "redneck Strokes" tag already, but the signs are all there: drums that trot rather than thunder, garage-rock riffs that resolve into power-pop bounce, good-looking young guys who are all gonna get incredibly laid, the backing of RCA Records.
Over the skittering grooves of "Happy Alone" and "California Waiting," lead singer Caleb Followill screeches and moans about girls he's played and games he's loved before. "Trani" drifts with the sort of slack backwoods passion Dylan found in Nashville skylines and the Stones saw in wild horses, then explodes into rip-snorting noise. "Dusty" serenades the places "where thrills are cheap and love divine," and you get the feeling the Kings find those places wherever they go. They may be young, but they've figured out what all Americans have to learn for themselves: These days, the South is what you make it.