When firing on all cylinders, the Drive-By Truckers might be America’s best rock band. “Decoration Day” and “The Dirty South” are some of this decade’s best albums, deftly delving into diverse themes of love, sex, politics and national identity. Even with an ever-evolving lineup of songwriters, the Truckers’ hallmarks remain unchanged. “The Fine Print” isn’t the greatest example of the band’s work but it does offer a few glimpses into their unique brand of brilliance.
This latest release is a collection of oddities and rarities from 2003-2008, which fortunately covers the era before Jason Isbell left the band. Isbell contributes two tracks here. “When the Well Runs Dry” is the archetypical Isbell song – dark, brooding and palatably desperate – about “when there’s nowhere to run and nowhere to stay.” It’s a stark reminder of how much the band lost when Isbell went solo in 2007.
Elsewhere, Isbell’s “TVA” and Mike Cooley’s “Uncle Frank” form a compelling two-song suite on the Tennessee Valley Authority. Isbell plays the good cop with a sparse acoustic history lesson focused sharply through the eyes of his backwoods narrator. “Thank God for the TVA,” he repeats with near-religious reverence. Cooley’s “Uncle Frank,” a tragedy to say the least, tells the other side of the story. First released ten years ago, the song is given a grittier presentation here, and the hammer in the final verse falls every bit as hard as it did in the original.
Patterson Hood is the third songwriter on the album and he contributes the lion’s share of the material. Unlike Isbell and Cooley, Hood isn’t quite on his game here and his songs range from solid (“The Great Car Dealer War”) to pretty much irredeemable (“Mrs. Claus’ Kimono”). Four covers fill out the rest of the disc and find varying degrees of success. Tom Petty’s “Rebels” and Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” are both fun, if somewhat stagnant, takes on well-known standards. Warren Zevon’s “Play it All Night Long” fares better. “Sweet Home Alabama / Play that dead man’s song” Hood sings with more than a little irony, before the cynicism gives way and he invokes Zevon again: “I’d rather feel bad than feel nothing at all.”
“The Fine Print” is probably the Truckers’ weakest album to date; as a collection of castoffs and misfits, that’s to be expected. There are some gems here for sure, but not in the volume fans have come to expect. In that sense the album is your standard odds and ends release – required listening for the devoted, but a poor starting spot for the uninitiated.