Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Old 97s "Blame it on Gravity" (New West Records 2008)

When I met my future wife in 1994 or so she had just moved to Austin from Dallas, and she wouldn't shut the fuck up about a band called The Old 97s. She was on a mission to get everyone she knew and everyone she met into this band. Being a sanctimonious music snob/geek who was certain that the only bands of worth that Dallas had produced were The Loco Gringos and, more recently, The Reverend Horton Heat I took her enthusiasm as evidence that The Old 97s were, well, a chick band. Try not to hate me too much - I'm a big enough person to admit it and, for the most part, have outgrown such off the cuff sexism. Anyway, at the the time I paid them no mind at all.

In 1996 I was driving out to a recording studio in Bee Caves to help out on a friend's record when a song came over the student radio station. I was so blown away that I pulled over to wait for the airbreak so I could write down the name of the band. You've probably guessed that the band was The Old 97s - the song was "Big Brown Eyes" off of Wreck Your Life. I don't know if I ever apologized to my wife to be for doubting her, but if I didn't I should have.

The music on that record, and especially their 1997 follow up Too Far to Care, struck about every chord in me there was to strike at that time. The songs were surly, fiery, angry, desperate, humorous, absurd and melancholy - sometimes all at once. Rhett Miller wailed exceedingly clever lyrics in one of the most engaging voices out there, Murray Hammond hit spot on harmonies, Ken Bethea laid down hooky, perfectly placed guitar licks, and Philip Peeples drove the whole thing relentlessly from behind the drum kit. They eschewed fully traditional pop structures and song lengths in the interest of telling a good story and, man, could they tell a fucking story. It was what country music, real country music, should have evolved into.

God knows it wasn't going to last. 1999's Fight Songs was a big disappointment to me. With exceptions of tracks "Crash on the Barrelhead" and "Nineteen" the record fell totally flat - the energy was gone and the songs sounded pedestrian and mundane. The clever lyricism was missing and the record as a whole was just boring - not much different than other guitar pop bands of the time. 2001's Satellite Rides was a bigger disappointment still with, to my mind, "Buick City Complex" being the only memorable song. It was after this release that the band parted ways with Elektra Records. I don't know the details, but whether they initiated it or not it was the best thing that could have happened to them at this point.

Drag It Up, released in 2004 on New West Records, finally showed signs of life. The rawness was back, things were getting clever again, and the songs, with a couple of notable exceptions, were strong and memorable. It seemed like the boys were on their way back. Blame it on Gravity proves the supposition to be the case, I'm happy to say.

From opening rocker "The Fool" followed by the gear shifting slinky Latin-8ths "Dance with Me" this record jumps right in feeling like classic, clever, attitude driven Old 97s. The pop direction they explored in the Fight Songs/Satellite Rides era is present in songs like the Posies-esque "My Two Feet", a big difference being that this is spirited, original sounding pop as opposed to the seemingly phoned in efforts on those two previous records. Mostly, however, you get a satisfying dose of Old 97s country rock goodness with everything that has made the band great intact and those elements that have weakened them largely absent.

Long time Rhett Miller collaborator Salim Nouraliah produced this effort, and what a job he did. On top of a drastic return to form on the part of the band, Nouraliah provides a healthy degree of experimentation in terms of song dynamics and especially the use of varying guitar tones within songs to give things an extra kick. It adds to the already overall listenability of the record and provides an addictive element that should lend this release a long shelf life.

I'm older. You're older. The Old 97s are older. I think one of the coolest things about this record is that they're playing to their audience again. Not to a pop crowd or a AAA format crowd, but to those that have grown up with them. We're all a little more reserved with families and jobs and such, but like to be reminded that at heart we're a bunch of surly, fiery, angry, desperate, humorous, absurd and melancholy kids who want to rock. With a touch of wisdom that ultimately makes the whole thing successful, that's a reminder that Blame it on Gravity gives us.

3.5 out of 4 Johnny Cash songs

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