Never mind Rhino's nine-CD Richard Pryor box set: The best comedy albums of 2000 come your way courtesy of a pair of unrepentant rockers. Both Athens, Georgia, upstarts the Drive-By Truckers and evergreen road warrior Neil Young share a wild-ass sense of humor, not to mention a taste for crunchy, liberating crudity. But, as two recent live albums indicate, Young and the Truckers each approach comedy--not to mention rock 'n' roll--from a slightly different angle.
It's probably a little unfair to call Road Rock (Reprise), credited to "Neil Young, Friends & Relatives" and recorded during his fall tour, a comedy record per se. Much of the laughter it stirs up depends on one's knowledge of Young's oeuvre--his endlessly circling career path, his tireless string of seemingly pointless live albums, and our sense of disbelief that he's still hoeing his row as insistently as ever. Take the opener, "Cowgirl in the Sand." Young first recorded this song 31 years ago. He has probably played it 2,000 times since then. Yet Young's treatment of it here is reminiscent of an especially brutal highlight from When Animals Attack. When the roil simmers down, the audience cheers, as much for the memories the song invokes as for this familiar, if wending, treatment.
But wait! Neil's not done! He revs it up again! And plays the same gouging guitar figures he has just spent 14-1/2 minutes reiterating! Who's laughing now? There's something inherently hilarious about such world-class obsessiveness. This guy must be kidding, you think. He's not, though, and that just makes the routine even funnier.
Unfortunately, no other music on Road Rock equals "Cowgirl," though a spooky "Tonight's the Night" and a duet of "All Along the Watchtower" with Chrissie Hynde are mildly diverting. In other words, the joke's on you--this really is just another pointless Neil Young live album. Still, if you're looking for laughs, there are amenities to spare. Take the CD's bluntly basic title, Road Rock, which sounds like a compilation picked up at a gas station, or a late-night TV offering. And the discrepancies between the track lengths as written on the cover and as seen on my changer make me chuckle heartily. After all, timing is everything, right? ("Motorcycle Mama," for instance, is advertised as 5:30 but lasts only 4:12. Do not mistake this for a complaint.) Perhaps wittiest of all is Road Rock's cover-sticker announcement that "Fool for Your Love" is previously unreleased. One listen should make you understand why.
The Drive-By Truckers' comic technique is just as conceptual as Young's, though far less oblique. Frontman Patterson Hood tells rambling, sharply detailed stories about the dead-end lives of dirt-poor Southerners, including himself, with punch lines broad enough for a WB sitcom. "Why Henry Drinks" begins with the couplet "Them stories that you tell me are so hard to swallow/You said, 'Go to hell,' but I know you'd just follow." And the title of "Buttholeville" isn't the only shameless thing about it: Hood uses his deep twang to force every line to rhyme with the title: "Working down at Billy Bob's Bar and Grille/The food here tastes the way I feel."
It's amazing to find a a honky-tonk punk quartet whose blazing new live album, Alabama Ass Whuppin' (Secondheaven.com), contains material that can complement a chaotic treatment of Jim Carroll's classic "People Who Died." But the real fun starts when the music stops: Hood's monologues indulge his tendency toward shaggy-dog storytelling to a logical end. The how-I-wrote-this-song intro to "18 Wheels of Love" details an absurd, heartwarming story of the singer's mother finding true love with a truck-driving Vietnam veteran ("And every last goddamn word of it is true"). "The Avon Lady" is a straight-up comedy routine (with background music) in which the neighborhood cosmetics dealer swindles a six-year-old Hood out of his lunch money. Not only does Hood tell better redneck jokes than Jeff Foxworthy, he's got his own drummer to do the rim shots.