On their eight studio album, beloved Texas rock ’n’ rollers the Old 97’s continue to produce some really great music, but also some really forgettable stuff too. This is the classic conundrum with these guys: at their best they are astoundingly good, a jingle-jangle amalgam of power pop, folk-rock, country, and cowpunk. But, at their worst, they just aren’t that special. Though it is worth buying each and every one of their records (because all of them have at least five terrific tracks), in 18 years, they haven’t made a perfect, each-song-a-winner album. They probably never will. Their hardcore fans are OK with that, of course, since they know that to see the Old 97’s live is to realize that these guys could play a selection of Barry Manilow’s most cloying numbers and fucking kill. So, as a fan, you take the great with the mediocre because either way they’re going to shred it all to glorious sweaty hell up there on stage. And as the iffy studio records continue to pile up, we can always go back to the double-live album they released in 2005 (the absolutely essential Alive and Wired), to tide us over until the next time they hit our town.
Perhaps this is why on their new record, The Grand Theatre Volume One, their approach was to play a stint of shows at the Sons of Hermann Hall in Dallas, hone the tunes onstage, and then head straight to the studio to try to get them down still sounding as “live” as possible. There is no doubt that this approach has helped to make this the best sounding Old 97’s record in quite some time. It is wild, slightly unfocused, totally committed, and furiously paced. (Also, it is possibly a bit drunk). But, though this lifts some of the tracks up somewhat, few of them have the depth that one would have wished for. There’s only so many times you can listen to “Every Night is Friday Night (Without You)” before you start skipping it (three times for me). And, the unfortunately self-important state anthem “State of Texas” is, at best, merely annoying, while the record winds down with two total snoozes, the syrupy “Love Is What You Are” and the barely-there “Beauty Marks”. So, let’s leave those, shall we?
And, we should leave them (or, they should have left them out, better still), because the rest of the album is pretty compelling, and occasionally excellent. The title track is vintage Old 97’s, a pushy swinging rocker with great Clash-like energy and inventive lyrics, while the oblique and relentlessly catchy “The Magician” is vintage rocking stuff (and sure to become a live staple), and the straight-ahead Johnny Cash of “You Were Born to Be in Battle” is among the best genre tunes they’ve ever recorded. But the real standout here is the bizarre, totally unnecessary, and yet still somehow superb “Champaign, Illinois”, a re-write of Bob Dylan’s poetic masterwork “Desolation Row” with new lyrics. Dylan, apparently, blessed the idea after hearing the track, and even allowed them to credit it as a co-write. (This is something he never does, by the way. It’s tough to know why he said yes this time. Anyway, such is the enduring mystery that is the most studied and least understood man in the business.) Singer and bandleader Rhett Miller’s new words are dark, appropriately wry and humourous, and feel worthy of the chords they now inhabit. You know the song, try humming it like this: “Up north in Chicago / Where booze makes no one blush / Memories come back to you / In a double bourbon blush / Memories they aren’t all bad / And neither my friend are you / There is an argument there must be some heaven / For hearts that are half true / Oh, but if you spend your whole life / Running horses in Detroit / No you will not go to heaven /You’ll go to Champaign, Illinois.” Well, they sound better in the song.
Since, as the title suggests, this is the first of a two-volume series (the other is due in 2011), one can’t help but wonder if this could have been one all-good-all-the-time record instead of what might well turn out to be an unnecessarily sprawling and inconsistent double. But, such is the lot for fans of this wonderful and frustrating band: to wait for that perfect record that we all know is never going to come.