I've spent a good bit of today revisiting my Old 97's albums in anticipation of Blame It On Gravity, the new record that hits stores Tuesday.
I'm probably a rarity among Old 97's fans in that I don't have a strong preference one way or the other for their more honky-tonk type stuff or the poppier later records. As far as I'm concerned, the stylistic changes were always kind of overstated anyway and whether it was a twangier song or one with more straightforward guitar licks, the hooks showed up no matter what.
The Old 97's hit me at a perfect time, when I was drawing in alt-country bands as fast as I could. I kinda took a back door into indie rock, following Wilco straight through and wound up in a whole different scene. But for several years, any good rock with a bit of twang was something that just sounded amazing to me. And the thing of it is, there was a core group of bands that really seemed like they couldn't do any wrong for several years. Wilco, Jayhawks, Whiskeytown, Old 97's, Richard Buckner, Alejandro Escovedo... the late 1990s to early 2000s were rich with great albums.
And screw any notion that it was all a fad or a trend. Whatever terminology people tried to lasso bands with was the only thing that's faded. Alt-country as a term may be dead, but so is alternative. It's all somebody in marketing who misunderstood the music to begin with.
But back to the Old 97's specifically: I lived on Satellite Rides for most of 2001. That record took me through six months living in Phoenix and right back home. It's great for driving, for sitting on the porch, for headphones, for everything. Four or five songs off that record ended up making it onto mixes, a feat matched just a handful other records (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Ruby Vroom, Darkness on the Edge of Town).
At the very tail end of my Phoenix experiment, the Old 97's rolled through the Valley and I got to catch them at the sadly long-gone Nita's Hideaway. I remember Rhett kept flinging his sweaty bangs out of his face, over and over and whenever Murray took lead vocals he looked like he was living his dream. I hung around and got some autographs on the ticket stub. The Old 97's were are as energetic as anybody on stage and you could tell there was a purity to their recording process because the songs were never labored live. I've since seen the live DVD and bought the live two-disc album and there's no doubt that's where their strengths really are.
Drag It Up fell into the good-not-great category, which certainly felt like a disappointment at the time, but listening again today it's hard not to think that it was an overlooked record in a lot of ways. The opener, "Won't Be Home," is outstanding and would've fit well anywhere in their catalog. I also love "Valium Waltz" and the goofy "Coahuila," but there are a couple duds.
Judging from the first track I've heard from Blame It On Gravity, the Old 97's are about bursting at the seams to get back in the game. "Dance With Me" is a hard-charging roadhouse type track that actually seems to split the difference between the band's country and pop tendencies pretty well. This year has already been marked by some highly anticipated return albums (Portishead, Magnetic Fields, Billy Bragg, R.E.M.) but there's nothing I've been looking forward to as much as this record. Stream three new tracks at the Old 97's MySpace. And I'll see you at the record store Tuesday.
Old 97's - Beer Cans (Too Far To Care outtake)
Old 97's - Valium Waltz (Drag It Up demo)
And check out this album preview clip from the Old 97's: