Like any musical movement, alternative-country started as a reaction to a stale status quo, gained grassroots traction, made critics giddy with a renewed sense of purpose and identity, enjoyed a creative peak, and then… Well, then it suffered the inevitable backlash. Those with enough forethought moved onto other things early on: Wilco, for example, jumped off the bandwagon long before it veered into trite territory. Others drew a metaphorical line in the sand, vowing to hold fast to the true tenets of the movement. In my area of the States, for example, people too hip for alt-country call themselves Red Dirt, which, so far as I can tell, is basically alt-country with a little less Johnny Cash and a little more Woody Guthrie. Yes, it gets that technical.
None of this seems to matter to Old 97’s. This is the first time the quartet has recorded in their hometown of Dallas since their first album, and the trip home is more than geographical. Having spent their last few albums dabbling with a classic pop sound (more British invasion than Bible Belt), Rhett Miller and company are also returning to their vintage alt-country sound. Fifteen years and seven albums into their career, this only makes sense. Bands, after all, are only granted the luxury of musically coming back home after they’ve gone through their “experimental” albums, lest they be accused of rehashing the same old formula. No, the Old 97’s didn’t make A Ghost Is Born, but they did do more than crank out retreads.
Simply revisiting their roots would have been nice enough, but Old 97’s do not merely recycle comfortable ground. Perhaps it’s because the band are at that stage in their career where they need to remind their fan base of their relevance or walk away, but they sound inspired and determined. There’s an urgency to their songwriting, playing, and singing that is too rarely seen in a band at such an autumnal point in their career trajectory. It is, undoubtedly, inspired stuff.
Indeed, Blame It on Gravity wastes no time in strutting its bravado, beginning with the one-two punch of “The Fool” and “Dance with Me”. The former begins with a fury of strumming and pounding, drops into a tight groove, then explodes with each chorus. While all the playing is solid, it is Philip Peeples’s drums that drive the song, chugging along like a train one moment, erupting into frantic fills the next, then settling into tight rolls that start the whole thing all over again. “Love is going to come / You’ve got to coax it out / You’ve got to be a fool / To be a fool in love”, Miller sings, and the music parallels the unpredictable nature of romance. “Dance with Me” elaborates on this theme; sounding like a cantina-surf rocker in a James Bond flick (yes, that’s a weird description, but listen to it), it seeps love and danger.
If the Old 97’s can masterfully blend the fast tempos of punk with the twang of country, though, they can also slow down the beat and craft some fine country sway. “Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue”, one of two songs here written and sung by bassist Murry Hammond, is the kind of country perfected by the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers; ethereal and hazy, it’s the sound of driving through the desert in the pre-dawn, the purple sky slowly giving way to daylight.
Of course, no Old 97’s album would be complete without the bookish charm of Rhett Miller. With one foot in the bar and the other in the library, he’s the foil to himself, the perfect mix of recklessness and studiousness to front a band that straddles just as many boundaries. His ability to toss off nonchalant observations that are more profound than they first appear is on display all over this album, but an example from “No Baby I” suffices: “The difference between us”, Miller sings, “Is way down on the inside / It’s very tricky business.” Such a lyric says relatively little on one level, but gets to the core of everything on another. You couldn’t explain an emotional disconnect in a more abstract manner, but you couldn’t explain it in a more exact manner, either.
This isn’t to say, however, that the whole album works to masterful effect. A few of the songs try to get away with too much and end up turning their influences into mere kitsch. “She Loves the Sunset”, for example, once again combines country with surf-rock, but its vibrato guitar evokes images of cheap hotels and plastic pink flamingos more than any genuine sentiment. And “This Beautiful Thing”, the other Hammond composition, sounds like city boys doing their best country impersonation, but never quite feeling it enough to stop affecting a drawl.
The slips here are few, though, and for the most part the quartet succeeds in doing what they do best—blending American music genres with ease and enthusiasm. From the insistent guitar riffs of “Ride” to the melancholic lilt of “Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue” to the drumming reminiscent of Mike Joyce’s legendary drumming in “The Queen Is Dead” found in “Early Morning”, Blame It on Gravity is a sturdy collection of songs. In that regard, it’s a nice reminder of what was so wonderful about alt-country in the first place. Oh sure, everything becomes familiar after a while, but some things never become trite when they’re done right.