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Drive-by Truckers: The Big To-Do (ATO) 

The Drive-by Truckers have created some of the most memorable perverts, drunks and assorted lowlifes of their career on The Big To-Do, an album packed with stories and characters presented with a photojournalist's detached honesty.

That truthful, slice-of-life songwriting has become the hallmark of the Drive-by Truckers. Patterson Hood once again contributes the majority of the album's songs, but Shonna Tucker and Mike Cooley check in with strong, evocative songs.

None is better than Cooley's "Birthday Boy," on which he narrates convincingly from a stripper's point of view, sly drawl and all: "Which one's the birthday boy, I ain't got all night / What's your mama's name? You can call me what you like." It's a life dogged by a shadow of sadness, mitigated by the only lesson that matters: "It don't take smarts to learn to tune out what hurts more than helps."

Hood sings of a seemingly open-and-shut murder case on "That Wig He Made Her Wear," a menacing talking blues tune. The pillar-of-town preacher was found dead, shot by his wife, who walked on a voluntary manslaughter charge after the courtroom revelation of the preacher's abusive side: "He made her dress up slutty before they had sex."

The Big To-Do comes across like a naturalistic study of the wrong side of the tracks, with indelible character sketches built around the frailty of dying ambitions.

More by Eric Swedlund

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