Raucous, But Not Their Best

The Grand Theatre Volume One (New West Records)
The Old 97’s

Kevin Gibson

One never knows what to expect from a new Old 97’s album; will they ever top the unforgettable Fight Songs? I didn’t think so until the delicious Satellite Rides came along a couple of years later (“Up the Devil’s Pay” is still one of my faves).

But 2004’s Drag it Up was a step back in my book, and Blame it on Gravity was in the same boat to my ears. Could it be that Rhett Miller’s solo career is diversifying his songwriting to the point that it’s compromising the quality of the songs? It seems to me that a poppy song like “Designs on You” from Satellite Rides would probably go into the Rhett solo bucket if it were written today. On the other hand, “Happy Birthday (Don’t Die),” from Miller’s latest solo effort, sounds for all the world like it could have and maybe should have found a spot on the latest release, The Grand Theatre Volume One. So who knows?

The point here is that the Old 97’s have released a solid album that will find a nice spot in the band’s canon. Songs like “Every Night is Friday Night (Without You)” and “The Magician” make for instant, rocking classics, the former being a raucous romp with a mean bass line and a big shout-along chorus that will imbed itself in the brain.

And “Champaign, Illinois” is a rewrite of Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” (with Mr. Dylan’s explicit permission, no less) that harkens to the band’s power-pop output, more common in the band’s early days.

But there are also a couple of snoozers, such as the vacant “Beauty Marks.” But these shortcomings can be forgiven, especially with the presence of tunes like bassist Murry Hammond’s “You Were Born to Be in Battle,” which eerily conjures the ghost of Johnny Cash.

If nothing else, we were reminded on February 22 at Headliners that no matter how well the latest album succeeds, the Old 97’s still bring their best to the stage. A clunker or two are easy to accept as long as that tradition continues.

Find out more at old97s.com.