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Leaving the bar-band label far behind

You can compare The Drams to Wilco in the sense that in both cases you have an alt-country darling completely retool its sound, then drop a double album on its fans that may infuriate the slide-guitar-and-banjo-and-drinking-equals-authenticity segment and confuse many of the rest.
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The Drams must be in some hurry.

Most bands have to make a half-dozen albums and wait a couple of high school freshman-to-senior cycles before they’re considered classic rock.

Yet on their 14-track debut “Jubilee Dive,” The Drams have created their own classic rock. There are early (aka good) era Tom Petty melodies, crunchy Rolling Stones riffs, blasts of southern soul horns, sweet ’70s harmonies, E Street Band piano accents, the odd Beatleism, and enough keyboard washes to placate any fan of The Band.

“We have all been into things like The Band and early Springsteen records and then a lot of old country and other stuff,” signer-songwriter-frontman Brent Best says. “There’s that cool collision between [’60s] Memphis soul stuff and country. It’s sort of this middle ground — this undefined stuff — that appeals to us.”

Yet they aren’t revivalists. Their songs are played with a punky energy that will make fans of leader Best’s former band, Slobberbone, happy. Or at least they should be.

More about Slobberbone later. Suffice it to say you can compare The Drams to Wilco in the sense that in both cases you have an alt-country darling completely retool its sound, then drop a double album on its fans that may infuriate the slide-guitar-and-banjo-and-drinking-equals-authenticity segment and confuse many of the rest. Not to say “Jubilee” is “Being There” — they’re two completely different albums masterminded by two very different songwriters. But the result is the same. Huge shift in sound. Huge leap forward artistically.

“I understand from a fan perspective, it may seem like a jump,” Best says.

“Jubilee Dive” began as a Best solo project while Slobberbone was on hiatus. “I really didn’t want to be in a band,” he says. But sometime during the year-and-half before the end of the group he brought in former bandmates guitarist Jess Barr and drummer Tony Harper, and keyboardist Chad Stockslager and bassist Keith Killoren from the Dallas band Budapest One that Best was producing, to flesh out the sound.

He liked what he heard: “Suddenly I wanted to be in a band again.”

The album begins urgently with “The Truth Lies Low.” Over a rising, anthemic guitar riff, piano adds color. Then Best, who previously saved his scorn for being kicked out a bar, unruly women, etc., turns it instead on the evening news: “Commonplace come-ons you think would never play / Somehow trump the thoughtful things we used to do and say" and "Color code the obvious / reduce the rest to green.”

The anger immediately gets diffused though, on “Humalong,” a midtempo rocker about playing your own song and eventually everyone will get used to it. A shot at Slobberbone die-hards? Whatever. The good vibe persists throughout the album on tracks such as the Alejandro Escovedo-ish “Fireflies” and the smile-inducing town-bum-wisdom of “Make a Book.”

There are some excellent rockers. “Unhinged” is all power-chord self-help tape where Best reminds a female acquaintance that it’s Friday fer chrissake, so forget the stupid soul-sapping job and just come out for drinks and music. “Crudely Drawn” is old-school Aerosmith about the pitfalls of being with the prettiest girl at the bar. It’s buoyant, heart-on-the-sleeve, lighters-out stuff.

“A lot of thematic content from the album, especially ‘Truth,’ comes from me sitting in front of the TV watching 24-hour news for that year-and-a-half and realizing, as the songs were coming, I did want to shoot for something more uplifting,” Best says. “Because in a way, maybe I was trying to uplift myself. I don’t need to write any more songs about being drunk.”

All of it wraps the album’s centerpiece, the audacious and pretentious (in the best way) “You Won’t Forget.” At nearly seven minutes, it begins with gentle “Harvest Moon” strumming, then goes off the deep end with call-and-respond vocals, lap steel, dual guitar solos, Billy Preston electric piano, tempo changes, fake coda, and — as Best describes them — some “Pink Floyd strings” and “the loungey Bob Newhart theme part.” And the rest of the kitchen sink.

“If there’s something in there that’s reminiscent of say, ’70s bombast, well the only reason it’s in there is because it made us smile,” Best says. “It was kind of a good feeling; a reckless disregard for what anybody thought was cool.”

“But it goes back to the spirit we had making it [throughout] of if we like it, well that’s what it is.”

There are darker moments on “Jubilee.” Tracks like “Holy Moses,” “When You’re Tired” and “Des Moines.” The latter has its protagonist in the thoroughly modern and completely maddening situation of trying save a dying relationship on a cell phone that’s cutting out.

But Best reverts to form at the end. With so much poppy, up-tempo and generally up music played, he sucker punches the listener with “Wonderous Life.” With alternating lines sung plainly in first person, and then electronically altered in third, the dirge begins waking up hungover on the couch, seeing your own blood mixing on the floor with broken glass, and moves along to waiting, alone, for her call to a phone that’s unplugged because you know she won’t. And from there it starts to get bleak.

If “Jubilee” at times seems a little concerned with arrangements, it is. But for the few moments it runs the risk of bloat, there is honest joy, heartbreak and hope in spades. The playing is excellent. Slobberbone’s first-one-to-the-end-of-the-song’s-the-winner pace has been replaced with nuance and excellent musicianship. Without losing its heart.

“Toward the end of Slobberbone, you know, we edited.” Best admits. “Even thought we’d grown as players we didn’t use much of it because that wasn’t really what Slobberbone was. Even though that’s kind of a dumb mindset to have.”

“We kind of put ourselves in a corner. At some point if you’re tagged as a really good bar band you start believing it.”

Best wrote the songs for guitar and harmonica as he always has. But he took advantage when he saw what he had in the studio.

“Chad has a really great mind for arrangements. The big difference with The Drams versus Slobberbone is it’s a more collaborative thing rather than people just adding their parts. To me, that’s great. It’s one of the things I’m most enthusiastic about,” he says.

“And now I have people to sing with me,” he says, latter adding that with horns or a drum flourish or keyboard accent “If that’s working and really pumping you don’t need three raging guitars going down your throat. You can elevate the songs where they need to be elevated in simpler ways. You don’t always have to do the same thing.”

In fact, the only off color in The Drams box of crayons might be Best’s voice. His croak definitely attended the same school as Paul Westerberg’s or Patterson Hood’s. But it humanizes the glossy arrangements and casts the tender moments in a rougher light.

What’s next? Lots of touring. There may be some Slobberbone covers at the shows or there won’t. They may open with a Band cover, or not. Best seems assured the band will continue to the spirit they had making “Jubilee.”

“We just did whatever the hell we wanted and never worried about how it was going to be perceived.”

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