The Old 97s popped up in the mid-’90s alongside other alt-country acts, including some long gone (Whiskeytown, Uncle Tupelo) and the still-toughing-it-out (Drive By Truckers, Bottle Rockets). Here in 2011, the Dallas natives undoubtedly belong with the former. Despite being nearly 20 years deep into twangy, alternative rock-based careers, Rhett Miller and company have clearly been wracking their brains, challenging the traditional LP format, which they’ve tackled eight times prior.
Last year, the quartet test ran over an album’s worth of new material during a week-long slew of shows at hometown stomping ground the Grand Theatre. The songs receiving the warmest reception were selected for 2010’s appropriately titled Grand Theatre, Volume One. This included the rootsy rabble rouser “A State of Texas”, odes to vices (“Let the Whiskey Take the Wheel”, “You Smoke Too Much”), and more mature, alternative-leaning tracks like “The Grand Theatre” and “Love Is What You Are”.
The Old 97s are a band most can agree never released a bad record. However, the 2000s have brought warning signs as to the group’s creative future: Miller embarked on a part-time solo project, re-issue connoisseurs Rhino released a 2006 best-of retrospective (often a sign the end is near), and their collective songwriting slowly drifted from the beer-soaked cowpunk of their rowdier mid-’90s phase. Given the implosion of aforementioned alt-country torchbearers Uncle Tupelo and Whiskeytown, perhaps it’s no small wonder the Old 97s have trudged on as long as they have with their original lineup intact.
That being said, there’s no need to beat around the bush with Volume 2. Last year’s installment definitely hoarded the majority of the session’s best tracks, and given the premise of the Grand Theatre experiment, there’s really no reason to be up in arms. Fortunately, Miller and songwriting partner Murry Hammond have long had consistency on their side.
Miller, the band’s more refined vocal presence, opens the album with a pair of thumping rockers (“Brown Haired Daughter”, “I’m a Trainwreck”), as if to prove he hadn’t squandered all his best hooks on Volume One. Often self-deprecating, almost always skilled with alt-rock storytelling, Miller offers some of the record’s best lyrics on “Perfume”, an indirect sequel to Volume One’s “The Dance Class” involving an agoraphobic protagonist and a catastrophic romance. On “The Actor”, Miller rolls up his sleeves and loosens his delivery just a smidge, perhaps to sprawl out alongside his bassist’s more mischievous persona.
Typically tossed a mere two or three songs per outing, Hammond usually rises to the occasion on Old 97s records, and things are no different this time around. “White Port” recalls the swaggering cowpunk of the group’s mid-90s fare with its lighthearted yodeling and beergarden-ready sing-along approach. On the late-album cut “How Lovely It All Was”, Hammond cleans up quite nicely and produces a breezy, mid-tempo slice of classy college rock. Through he probably wasn’t exactly hitting its glossy high notes in the original Grand Theatre sessions, the songwriting quality is quite difficult to refute. In fact, one could make the argument that Hammond has matched Miller’s songwriting chops ever since 2008’s Blame It On Gravity.
Though Volume Two ultimately fails to match the quality of its predecessor, it certainly validates its existence as a second take of the venerable band’s fan friendly approach to the creative process. For a group chewed up and spit out by the major label circuit years ago, these Texans continue to bring a sense of quality and continuity to the beer-guzzling, Western-clad alt-country circuit.