In a career spanning almost thirty years on both independent and major labels, Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ has refused to be pigeonholed. The band, formed by Kevin (or Kevn) Kinney in 1985 has happily leaped from genre to genre, drawing on hard rock, country, pop, punk and other influences. Between June 2012 and January 2014, the band – now consisting of Kinney, founding member Tim Nielsen, Sadler Vaden and Dave V. Johnson – recorded a series of four EPs from which a tight, all-killer, no-filler collection has been culled. The simply-titled Best of Songs, on Nashville’s Plowboy Records label, is a vinyl release cleverly packaged in the style of a 1970s K-tel greatest hits compilation. And though these ten selections may not have been hits, longtime fans of the band might well find the songs among Drivin’s greatest. Those unfamiliar with the band’s history won’t be disappointed, either.
The four Songs EPs each touched on a different aspect of the band’s sound. As Kinney explained, the EPs served to “deconstruct” the group’s musical DNA, to “try to explain who we are and where we came from. So Songs from the Laundromat was kind of looking back to our early days on the Southern kudzu circuit. Songs About Cars, Space and the Ramones was based on our early roots in punk. Songs from the Psychedelic Time Clock was our tribute to our psychedelic roots. And Songs from the Turntable is who we are today, and what happens when you put all those influences together.” From this intriguing high concept, the band has crafted a breezily enjoyable LP that stands on its own.
The three tracks plucked from Songs About Cars, Space and the Ramones naturally touch on all three of those titular subjects. Melodic jangle pop meets tough rock on “Hot Wheels,” which conjures up the familiar images of summer, cars and girls. “Space Eyes” takes a different approach. The moody guitar-driven instrumental would feel right at home on a Quentin Tarantino soundtrack with its far-out spin on surf music. “Out Here in the Middle of Nowhere” underscores the Ramones part of the equation, with a breakneck, furious attack worthy of the punk heroes.
If these tracks harken back to pop days gone by, that’s no coincidence. So does the lone track reprised from Songs from the Psychedelic Time Clock. There’s more than a hint of Austin, Texas’ 13th Floor Elevators on the garage rave-up “The Little Record Store Just Around the Corner,” a psych-pop nugget with a subject that anyone reading this site should surely appreciate. Songs from the Laundromat offered the most aggressive aspects of the Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ sound as evidenced by the three tracks which appear on Best of Songs. Despite its origins in the Laundromat, the song entitled “Dirty” is happily so – a chugging blues-rocker with scorching guitar licks a-plenty with a swaggering, nearly Stones-esque lead vocal. “Ain’t Waitin’ on Tomorrow” is another fiery, aggressive, live-in-the-moment track emphasizing the band’s heavy roots with a hint of Tom Petty-esque vocals and some pure metal screaming. “R.E.M.” offers an affectionate and nostalgic tribute to the band’s Athens, Georgia brethren; “the biggest southern rock band I know is R.E.M.,” Kinney sings of the group that broke up in 2011.
Songs for the Turntable was intended to present a sonic picture of the band squarely in the present day and in doing so, shows a band that’s still vital. The straight-ahead guitar rock anthem “Turn” has a big chorus worthy of, well, Big Star; the Tom Petty comparisons might be apt, once more, on both the vocals and production of the tight, chiming rocker “Strangers.” Lyrically, too, the track would fit into any classic rock playlist with the tried-and-true jab at an ex: “With friends like you, who needs strangers?” Like “Turn,” “Roll Away the Song” espouses the virtues of looking forward and letting go of the past. It features a muscular, tough southern rock vibe with echoes of Lynyrd Skynyrd and “Sweet Home Alabama” in its potent riff and muscular but melodic playing. Of course, Drivin’ N Cryin’ has long occupied its own place in the annals of Southern rock, but the tip of the hat to Skynyrd is well-earned.
Though recorded with various producers including Kinney and Paul Ebersold, the ten tracks on Best of Songs coalesce into an album that’s both a treat for longtime fans and a solid introduction for those new to the band’s oeuvre. The 180-gram vinyl, too, offers a bold and warm sound that’s appropriate for this forward-looking yet unabashedly reflective band. Having distilled its own style into its individual elements, Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ is more than poised for the next stage in its musical evolution. Anyone giving a chance to this bright and brash collection will likely be ready to come along for the ride!