Old 97's, Backstreet Boys, Blink-182, and Dido
27 April 1999
The Old 97’s remind me of a bumper sticker I saw recently in Oak Park, Illinois: “I Was a Vietnam Veteran Before It Was Popular.” The same idea fits because this was a band of rock and blues kids who were into country, which wasn’t very popular in the 1980s. And yet, by 1994, four guys—drummer Philip Peeples, guitarists Ken Bethea and Rhett Miller, and bassist Murry Hammond—had managed to put their perspectives on country music down in the form of the Old 97’s, becoming one of the most recognizable and influential alt-country bands.
Throughout the early ‘90s, the Old 97’s put out a few country and western, Texas-twangy records and toured incessantly. However, by 1999 the band had started to evolve in more of a mainstream pop direction, which is readily apparent on Fight Songs. There are two Old 97’s on display here—a college bar band and a traditional, rootsy, country rock band.
The new sound is heard right away in the first track, “Jagged”, a pop-rock song with Americana sensibilities. The lead guitar grips you immediately, and I can’t help but wonder if the Drive-By Truckers ripped off the chord and song structure for their song, “Hell No I Ain’t Happy” off of 2003’s Decoration Day. Other pop songs that stood to alienate long-time fans include “Oppenheimer”, “What We Talk About”, and “Murder (Or a Heart Attack)”.
Although most people point to “Murder” as the best song on this record, I disagree. Those honors have to go with “Lonely Holiday”. This may be one of the saddest songs ever recorded in the last 15 years, and it’s a solid tearjerker along the lines of the Verve’s “The Drugs Don’t Work” and the Juliana Theory’s “You Always Say Goodnight, Goodnight”. When Midler whispers, “I’ve thought so much about suicide / Parts of me have already died”, you can feel his pain. What makes the whole experience so alarming for the listener is that the song is almost happy, in a country and western, upbeat kind of way—kind of like Johnny Cash’s “Cocaine Blues”.
In some ways, that’s really a good description of this whole record—sad, country-inspired songs that have pop and rock edges. There’s no question that Fight Songs is an alt-country record due the prevalence of that sound and the themes in Miller’s lyrics. Tracks like “Busted Afternoon”, “Valentine”, and “Let the Idiot Speak” seem like the soundtrack to warm evenings of barbecue, lemonade, and Jim Beam.
In the end, 1999 will be known for the year that the Old 97’s partially reinvented themselves and released their first country-pop record. But, the Old 97’s, like the train for which they were named, would continue to push the boundaries of rock ‘n’ roll and country music into the next century, and continue to be one of the best American bands. Shyam Sriram
18 May 1999
The first album to officially sell over one million units in its first week (it wound up selling well over 10 million in its lifetime), Backstreet Boys’ Millennium kicked off the era of the mega-album, now a quaint memory in a time when most albums struggle to sell a million copies ever. A typical pop album of the era, all oily ballads and goofy post-new jack dance jams, it hasn’t aged well at all, except for one song: the immortal “I Want It That Way”.
You may not know what the hell the song is about, but damn if you don’t start singing “Ain’t nothin’ but a heartache / Ain’t nothin’ but a mistake” as soon as the chorus hits. It turned out to be the finest moment for not only the Backstreet Boys themselves, but also the Swedish writing and producing team who came up with the song. Although Millennium had other hits (like the immortalized-by-Napoleon-Dynamite dance jam “Larger Than Life” and the ballad “Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely”), it’s “I Want It That Way” that remains indelible long after Kevin, Howie, AJ, Nick, and Brian have faded from the public conscious and people have forgotten the remainder of the album it came from. Mike Heyliger
1 June 1999
Enema of the State
Listening to Enema of the State for the first time in years, it was instantly recognizable why this album became such a hit. It’s the hooks. Prior to this album, Blink-182 had managed to put together a handful of catchy pop-punk songs (especially “Dammit”) that put the group on the mainstream music radar. But Enema of the State is a collection of irresistible guitar and vocal hooks that lodge in your brain and stay there for days.
The band was also known for its extremely juvenile sense of humor, which it toned down here, at least for the songs themselves. The album title and cover art—as well as the videos for “What’s My Age Again?”, which featured the band running naked through Los Angeles and San Diego, and “All the Small Things”, which gently parodied the boy-band videos of the time—all retained their trademark crude jokes. This combination of hooky and jokey made Blink a success, which was quickly imitated by a slew of progressively less-likable bands (Hello Sum 41, New Found Glory, and—ugh—A Simple Plan). Producer Jerry Finn got the band to go for a crisp, ultra-clean sound on the album, but more importantly, he seemed to get singer-songwriters Tom Delonge and Mark Hoppus to focus on their songwriting for an entire record. Considering how sloppy and unprofessional the band was in concert (I had the misfortune to see them three times—the last time, during a co-headlining arena tour with Green Day, I actually left the show a few songs into Blink’s set), the quality of the songs on this album is kind of startling.
From the opening guitar riff of “Dumpweed” to the end of closer “Anthem”, this album only falters during a couple of lackluster songs near the end. And even those are at least decent. The lyrics on Enema of the State aren’t great—“Dumpweed”’s refrain is “I need a girl that I can train”, while “The Party Song” repeats “Some girls try too hard / With the way that they dress / And those things on their chests” like it was clever, and “All the Small Things” is a really, really trite love song. But “What’s My Age Again?” knowingly addresses the band’s juvenile humor, and the level of detail in the attempted-suicide power ballad “Adam’s Song” makes it quite affecting. And I would be remiss to finish this reminiscence off without mentioning drummer Travis Barker. Easily the most skilled player in the band, his creative flourishes subtly enhance the songs here without becoming overwhelming. It may mark the point where Blink-182 made themselves easy targets for ridicule, but Enema of the State deserved to be the hit it became. Chris Conaton
1 June 1999
Dido’s debut album, No Angel, first entered my radar thanks to a British friend who seemed unable to stop replaying the first two verses from the single “Thank You”—the same opening that Eminem later sampled in “Stan” from The Marshall Mathers LP. No Angel was released in the US before it hit the shelves in the UK, but even before it was available in Dido’s home country the success of the album was assured. With her softly floating vocals and vaguely Celtic-inspired electronic backing, Dido was something completely different in the late ‘90s music scene. The landscapes she sings about are slightly unearthly and dreamlike, but her choruses are catchy, and thus pop fans latched on quickly to her tunes about lovers coming and going, as well as more mundane themes like missing the bus and having a bad day at work.
Initially, it seemed rather pretentious for the record industry to introduce yet another single-named pop star, but I can understand why Florian Cloud de Bounevialle Armstrong, as she was born, might want to re-imagine herself for a record career. The name Dido has roots in an ancient Phoenician word meaning ‘wanderer’—and this fits perfectly with the singer’s themes of travel, self-discovery, disappointment, and love lost. With several radio-ready singles, and the ability to appeal to multiple ages, No Angel did well in major Anglophone markets and Dido became a household name. Dido’s music lends itself well to mixing and sampling, which in this age of digital mash-ups has ensured some degree of longevity. Just this week I stumbled across two YouTube mashups of Dido’s “Here with Me” track from No Angel mixed with Kanye West’s song “Say You Will”. Ten years on, No Angel is still getting play. Lara Killian
// Notes from the Road
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