The Old 97’s first two albums were solidly in the alt-country mold (even if the band rejected that descriptor). They gained attention in part because it was a good time for that sound, but it didn’t hurt that the albums were very good and they were even better live. Later, the group would cut pop-rock music, but 15 years ago the group split the difference and cut the finest album of their career. Too Far to Care, the group’s first for Elektra Records, gave them an opportunity to get in a studio, work carefully, and make something memorable. They did so not through fussiness, but by figuring out exactly what to burn down.
Ken Bethea’s “Timebomb” riff opens the album with as dynamic a moment as the band has in its catalog. Rhett Miller’s turns loose with his singing (now confident enough to be neither pointedly Texan or oddly British). He sounds as if he’s lost his mind, and he’s either taken the band with him or they’re happily driving him there. It’s a fantastic moment, and the album won’t let up for a few more tracks until “Salome”, a lovely cut that’s perfectly placed on the album.
If the album opens with rowdy rock, the twang (the term “twang” here used contractually) still comes through. Bassist Murry Hammond’s “W. TX Teardrops” isn’t far removed from a country song, and Hammond’s stated that he wrote it as a yodeling cowboy number. “Streets of Where I’m From” and “Curtain Calls” show Miller slipping into his country vocals.
“Big Brown Eyes” takes a perfectly cute pop song and roughs it up with sand on the verses and rock on the chorus. Miller’s personable lyrics (“You’ve made a big impression for a girl of your size”) work in a context that’s concrete but unexplained. Who is Robert? Why do we care what his dad thinks?
Miller’s songwriting is at its best throughout the album. He’s goofier than he’d let himself be, and the demeanor provides a sort of transparency in his characters and writers that we don’t often get in pop music. He’s willing to rhyme words with themselves or to use cliched pairings for effect. This sort of characterization brings an immediate humanity to his characters that he quickly turns around for emotional effect. “Melt Show” starts with lines like “We fooled around / You let me have it for free.” The comical start mocks the singer’s suggestion of love, but the jokiness gets upended as that song turns to hurt, all exacerbated by Philip Peeple’s insistent drumming. (Peeple’s style might come as much from Sun Records, maybe DJ Fontana, as from any of the rowdier, more recent rockabilly you might think of, but it’s every bit as charged).
This sort of writing finds its peak in “Barrier Reef”, one of Miller’s greatest achievements. He names his singer after himself (with birth name Stewart Ransom Miller), but portrays him as a louche drunk. Lines like “You know how some girls are / Always making eyes? / Well, she wasn’t making eyes” suggest a rambling semi-coherence that’s laughable in the singer’s pick-up story. The singalong chorus, an immediate ear-worm, makes it feel like a good-hearted bar tale until the bottom falls out at the end. Even then, the reveal comes as a joke (“With her on top / and me on liquor”) but it hides a painful emptiness.
The song is governed not by comedy but by despair, and despite Miller’s ability to write lovely songs like “Question” and the sort of material that winds up on his solo albums, Too Far to Care has a bleakness permeating it. As he sings in “Streets of Where I’m From”, “It’s not funny like on TV / And it’s not smart like it is in books”. If the lyric provides meta-commentary on representations of angst, it comes from a place too grounded to think of it as a thing called “angst”.
And all that gets blown out by the album’s final track. This version of “Four Leaf Clover” reworks a song first released on the debut “Hitchhike to Rhome”. Here X’s Exene Cervenka appears, edits the lyrics, and helps make the song the monster that remains a live standard. It’s hopelessness funneled into a musical rage. Everyone in the group plays a crucial role, but Peeples’s drumming gives the song its vitality. It’s the perfect rager to end an album that’s disguised itself in coy pop, railroad yodels, and rock before finally revealing its heart.
For the reissue, we get four bonus tracks on the first disc. “Northern Lights” appeared on the Nothing to Attract You EP at the time, and “Beer Cans” and “No Doubt About It” show up for the first time on an official release. All three are quality, particularly “Beer Cans”, but none of them would have fit on the original release. The fourth track, “Holy Cross” would have been a great addition. It comes from the trucker tradition, relying on Miller’s skillful use of particularity and the teasing of hidden meaning within a seemingly futile life. The song’s revival alone might make the reissue essential.
Disc two contains 11 previously unreleased demos from the era. Some are Miller solo recordings while other feature the band. “Broadway” makes for a great inclusion, as does the old Ranchero Brother (Miller and Hammond) cut “Daybed”. This take on “Barrier Reef” doesn’t work at all, but it’s fascinating to hear. The band plays it as a sad desert song. Without the rollicking energy, the song bogs down, and the emotional resonance disappears. “Holy Cross” appears again, this time feeling like an old folk song. “The 1” looks forward to the straightforward pop of Blame It on Gravity, and may sound better here than that album’s version.
As a repackaged anniversary album, there are a couple quibbles worth making. First, with only 11 songs on disc two, someone missed a great opportunity to get all sorts of material out there. We know there are hundreds of hours of recordings from the period, so it’s unfortunate not to have demos of other songs, or alternate recordings of tracks like “Timebomb” or “Melt Show”. Second, the liner notes feel a little insubstantial. For the sort of fan that wants to dive in to the unreleased material, it would be useful to have notes on the recordings, other appearances, etc.
Still, those are small complaints to make. Fifteen years on, Too Far to Care holds up not just as a strong album of its time, but as one of the best albums of its genre (whatever genre you care to pick). The Old 97’s utilized a variety of sounds, by pushed them all through a high energy mill to produce something coherent and distinctive. They coupled the music with memorable, affecting lyrics, resulting in an album that’s comical but intense, loose but not sloppy, and about as good as it gets.