I’ve been watching The Drams progress steadily from that first Dallas show at their home-base, The Barley House, up to a recent Labor Day appearance in a crowded, trendy uptown pub and there’s been a definite arc to their sound that bears noting.
I had gotten pretty familiar with the songs through the shows and bootlegs of the shows long before Jubilee Dive was released. I even dug out some old Slobberbone show recordings and CDs for comparison.
That seems to be the best place to start – with the comparisons.
As has been noted before, a “dram” is one eighth of an ounce of whiskey. That makes the name fitting – The Drams being a less drinking-song oriented band. Slobberbone drank and sang about their whiskey by the bottle (those big jug bottles- to be sure). That’s one way they earned the deserved reputation of “Texas best bar band.”
The other way was by rocking the house.
The songs on Jubilee Dive have the distinct sound of Brent Best trying to break out of the “bar band” mold. He’s reaching further, expanding his style and trying to do something new and different and that’s led to some controversy among many of his long time fans.
(You know who you are)
His greatest strength with Slobberbone was always his dead on observations of drunks, misfits and obsessives, coupled with a self deprecating sense of humor put to a hard rocking, grungy alt country backdrop. When he was writing Slobberbone’s songs, he was best compared to Drive By Truckers’ Patterson Hood. They both do similarly great songs about a particular sub-sect of Southern, rural America. And they both really rock when they do it.
There are still traces of all that on Jubilee Dive, but for the most part, just traces.
There’s not much in the way of humor, nothing as immediately catchy and compelling as “Trust Jesus” or “Give Me Back My Dog.” There’s no wallowing in the hung-over depression of “16 Days,” no epic storytelling along the lines of “Billy Pritchett” or “Little Sister,” no banjos or fiddles or as one commenter on The Dram’s message board so concisely put it: “no drunken anthems about killing a girl.”
There is a lighter, more pop-oriented approach that doesn’t always play to his strengths.
Songs like “Hummalong” and the circa-1990’s REM like “Fireflies” have an optimistic feel to them that really doesn’t sound like anything you’ve heard from Brent Best before.
Where Slobberbone made a lot of Jesus references, “Holy Moses” is a prayer to, well Moses.
I’m not really sure where that comes from. Do people even pray to Moses?
The most pop sounding track, “You Wont Forget” has a Sixties Buffalo Springfield meets Burt Bacharach kind of groove to it and sounds like Brent reflecting on his old band and where it was all heading. The bouncy electric piano and vocal bops at the end made it the most surprising thing they played at their shows before JD’s release. At the same time, it was kind of like seeing Polyphonic Spree, in that I just didn’t know what to make of it all.
The best tracks are the opener “Truth Lies Low,” a song allegedly inspired from watching too much CNN and a not-too-bad attempt at political-media commentary. “Unhinged” and “Make A Book” both pick up the pace nicely. Plus the two most Slobberbone-like songs: “When You’re Tired” and, my favorite Drams song yet, “Des Moines.”
“Des Moines” proves Brent still has the songwriting chops- for those of you who think he’s gone soft – a song about trying to connect with a significant other on a cell phone that drops the call:
“What a fool I was to trust
Words so critical to say
To a wireless phone call
From 800 miles away”
He then takes the familiar (and oh-so-annoying) marketing slogan “Can you hear me now?” and turns it into a desperate and frustrated plea.
It sounds a lot like the old Brent. That funny-sad situation observed through alcoholic cynicism with a suddenly sober self awareness. Or something.
You can actually get a little more of that on the album’s excellent closer “A Wonderous Life,” a slowed down, more produced re-visit of “Haze Of Drink” type sentiment.
The band sounds good, the playing is tight and precise and Brent still maintains his distinct drawl at times. Jess Barr is as great a guitarist as ever and the Best-Barr guitar duels are there. Tony Harper still maintains a great beat. A lot of the new sound has been attributed to the addition of keyboardist Chad Stockslager – which may or may not be the case.
When they first started playing live, the keyboards were a little too out front and seemed jarring. Recent shows have found a better balance and the band’s constant playing has honed them into a more cohesive unit. Stockslager and new bassist Keith Killoren are both better vocalists than SB’s Brian Lane was.
Now, rather than sounding just a little like they’re trying to make sure they play all the notes right, they rock with the kind of abandon Best, Barr and Harper (and Lane) were almost famous for.
If you’re among those that worry that Best has strayed too far off field . . . relax. Go see them play. The covers they’ve been playing on this tour: The Band’s “The Shape I’m In,” Neil Young’s “Burned,” and even a really great rendition of Gram Parson’s “Blue Eyes” return Brent and company to familiar sounding territory.
Catch the clip of “Unhinged” for a good idea of what to expect.
There’s still a lot of complaining that they aren’t doing Slobberbone songs, but a recording of a recent show in Iowa finds them playing “Trust Jesus.”
Ironically, it was the least rehearsed sounding and most dissonant song in the set.
Jubilee Dive sounds like a fresh start for a (sort of) old act. It has pretty good stuff to dig into and a few things to ignore.
All in all, it’s a good debut- and if you’re a long time fan of the Bone, I’m willing to bet you’ll find some of that old rock and roll magic you crave at a live Drams show.
You just might not get quite as drunk.