Atlanta’s Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ (also Drivin-N-Cryin; more recently, drivin n cryin) isn’t an easy band to classify. The group delves into folk and bluegrass as easily as it kicks out gritty guitar rock. Singer/guitarist Kevn Kinney’s thoughtful (if occasionally melodramatic) lyrics contribute a romantic working-class everyman sensibility that rarely seems forced. It’s Lynyrd Skynyrd and Hank Williams, R.E.M. and Bob Dylan. It’s Lollapalooza and H.O.R.D.E. It’s eclectic — in other words, a marketing mess, which is why the group has wallowed on modern rock’s second tier, never fully embraced by any particular audience despite a succession of engaging records.
Scarred but Smarter is a promising, if somewhat murky, debut whose principal charm lies in the way the trio mines contrasting genres as if they can’t tell the difference. The enjoyably mixed bag features country-rockers (“Another Scarlet Butterfly”), pastoral ballads (“You Mean Everything”), anthemic blue-collar rock (“Stand Up and Fight for It”) and Sabbathy metal (“Saddle on the Side of the Road”), all united by Kinney’s salt-of-the-earth lyrics.
Produced by Anton Fier (who also did most of the drumming), Whisper Tames the Lion focuses the trio’s musical attack while maintaining the polystylistic approach. The resulting disc is surprisingly balanced and dynamic; highlights include the tense title track, the garagey “Powerhouse” and the delicately acoustic “On a Clear Daze.”
The band expanded to a quartet of Kinney, bassist Tim Nielsen, drummer Jeff Sullivan and former R.E.M. roadie Buren Fowler, joining as second guitarist, on Mystery Road. The group is more fluent in its varied idioms. Full-throttle fast’n’loud tunes like “Toy Never Played With” and “You Don’t Know Me” suggest that drivin’ n’ cryin’ could probably make a nice living as a metal band if so inclined, but such folkier numbers as “Peacemaker” and “Straight to Hell” make you glad they’re not.
Using a streamlined spelling of the band’s handle, Fly Me Courageous (with hard-rock producer Geoff Workman behind the board) became the band’s moment of near universal appeal, and with good reason. It pulls together all of the sonic strings explored on the previous releases. The result is mostly raging hard rock: “Lost in the Shuffle,” “Around the Block Again,” “Rush Hour,” “Chain Reaction,” the foot-stompin’ “Build a Fire” and the endlessly riffing title track, which became a battle anthem for pilots in the first Gulf War. Fly Me Courageous isn’t all crank, though; “For You” is gentle, chiming folk, while the country gait of “Let’s Go Dancing” echoes Tom Petty’s solo work. The Live on Fire EP is an equally spirited affair, featuring the album track and hot performances of three older songs.
Reaction was so strong to the harder edge of Fly Me Courageous that Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ mistakenly threw itself almost wholly in that direction on Smoke. Ironically, the album’s best tracks are its few toned-down interludes: the one-guitar “What’s the Difference,” the spare bits of the ruinous “Patron Lady Beautiful” and the bluesy acoustic “When You Come Back.” Otherwise, Smoke is an anonymous, indistinctive arena rock outing.
The group then took a break, lost Fowler and regrouped on a new label for Wrapped in Sky. The trio shoots wide this time out, capturing its broad stylistic ambitions better than on any other album. “Pura Vida,” “Light” and the dramatic “Silence of Me” maintain the rock quotient in one late-album swoop, but they’re counterbalanced by the jazzy gentleness of the title track, the acoustic chime of “Indian Song” and “Telling Stories,” the easygoing twang of “Leader the Follow” and the Latin flavor of “Señorita Louise.” Adjunct keyboardist Joey Huffman’s textures are a valuable new contribution, and Kinney mines the group’s new soundscape for thoughtful ruminations about Native Americans (“Indian Song”), self-determination (“Saving Grace,” “Light,” “Leader the Follow”) and the loss of virginity (“Silence of Me”).
Kinney is the group’s most prolific solo artist. Everything Looks Better in the Dark is MacDougal Blues has the best songs and benefits from R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck’s sympathetic production and accompaniment (although the attempt to recast Kinney as an acoustic New York folkie is misguided; he’s a lot more convincing in the group context); Down Out Law is also quiet and acoustic, an almost desperate reaction to Smoke‘s heaviness. (Most ingenuous song title: “A Beatnik Haight Street Kerouacian Ripoff in E.”)
Everything Looks Better in the Dark, a collection of 15 tracks recorded by Kinney (who wrote and sings all but one) and former partner Frank French between 1984 and 1986, was remixed for release after the group began its ascent. The tunes sound like what they apparently were: a blueprint for drivin’ n’ cryin’ (the album contains one song bearing the band’s name and another was re-recorded for Whisper Tames the Lion).
Nielsen and Sullivan are players rather than leaders in their non-Drivin’ projects: the brilliantly named Kathleen Turner Overdrive (in which Nielsen served for a time) plays fiery, energetic punk, while Toenut (Sullivan’s hobby) favors an artier kind of noise that blends dense ambience with screeching vocals.