The Big To-Do (ATO)
It's 2010, and the most intriguing thing about the Drive-By Truckers is still the exit of Jason Isbell in 2007; both the band's studio releases since his departure are defined by his absence. While co-founding songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley each hailed from specific country and rock storytelling traditions, Alabaman Isbell intermingled his country with classic R&B and a serious Stones jones. The Truckers compensated, admirably, on 2008's Brighter Than Creation's Dark; they sidestepped the question of how to rock without their most able rocker by pretty much not rocking at all.
But you can't do that twice, and The Big To-Do has the Truckers returning to loud rock with selective infusions of modern and "classic" alt-rock, making for a record that never fails to surprise even as it's kicking ass. Take "The Wig He Made Her Wear"—a Hood original about a woman who shot her preacher husband in Selmer, Tenn. A Trucker topic du jour, but the musical track is angular, with out-of-sequence guitar lines weaving a complicated web that holds aloft Hood's rubbery drawl.
Not that Isbell isn't missed; sometimes, when the rhythms crunch, you still yearn for that familiar high-octane swing. Then his replacement, longtime contributor John Neff, pulls another fancy one out of his arsenal of tricks—a surprising electronic effect, or yet another demonstration of his slide mastery—and reminds you that these Truckers are just now realizing their potential, outside the comfort zone Isbell provided.