I love this band. They’ve gone through many changes over the years, but there’s always something musical and inspiring to discover in their records. I’ve never seen them play live, but their 2005 live album, Alive and Wired, suggests they’re a “smoking” live act (as the sleeve notes say).
Old 97’s are from Texas and come from the same ‘cow punk’ school made popular by Uncle Tupelo: a punky form of country rock, sort of the anti-Eagles… like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young if Neil had been allowed to plug in his guitar. This is country restored by injecting Texas singer/songwriter cred and hardcore’s energy. Their early records contained such spectacular songs as ‘Doreen’ and ‘Barrier Reef’ – by the sounds of it, fanbase favourites and staples of the live show.
Since about 1999’s Fight Songs, main songwriter Rhett Miller (who has solo aspirations – there are two solo records) has steered the Old 97’s towards a more pop-inflected sound. The country roots are definitely there, but the subject matter and melodies are oriented towards an indie-pop kind of sound (think Barenaked Ladies or They Might Be Giants). The resulting sound is like a more energetic version of Blue Rodeo, or a slightly slicker, more modern Uncle Tupelo. Where Wilco rose from Tupelo’s ashes and gained virtually limitless credibility by mixing country and experimental indie rock, Old 97’s chose to blend country punk with pop. They’re an easier listen, much lighter than Wilco, and a little less sleepy than Blue Rodeo (who, I always thought, were the anti-Wilco – at the opposite end of the modern country/rock spectrum). (I should say that I deeply admire both Wilco and Blue Rodeo.)
Enough of the comparisons and historical situating and on to the new Old 97’s record. Blame it on Gravity is a very listenable, friendly indie/pop/country album. Perhaps not their strongest studio effort, but it’s got strong highlights in ‘Dance with Me’ and ‘She Loves the Sunset’ – both with wacky Latin influences, putting an indie spin on Jimmy Buffett in a manner of speaking. ‘The Easy Way’ has a bit more crunch to it, ‘The One’ rocks and ‘Color of a Lonely Heart is Blue’ is an excellent ballad.
I’m less positive about songs like ‘My Two Feet’ or ‘Ride’ – they sound too pop or indie, too run-of-the-mill to me. It’s as if their lack of country twang hampers them, holds them back from becoming everything they could be. This band shines when a thumping double bass provides a solid two-note baseline to twangy story songs.
Old 97’s are a band worth exploring. You’ll find a lot to like. I’d suggest you start with their earlier records, but this new one is certainly worth listening to.