For those of you who haven’t heard the Old 97’s, here’s one hell of a good chance. I suggest you take it.
In 64 minutes, Hit by a Train: The Best of Old 97’s skims the career of a fine Texas cult band from their beginnings through 2001’s Satellite Rides, the final album of their productive stint at Elektra. It’s one of the finest hours of music I’ve heard in a long, long time. And the best part is, this disc manages to make some sense of a band whose music runs the gamut
from alt-country to power pop, with a stop along the way for a brief acoustic heartbreaker.
Old 97’s are a textbook example of a band for whom a chronological retrospective is the only way to go, mostly due to the group gradually growing out of the alt-country thing into, um, something else. “Stoned” and “King of All the World” sound like the work of entirely different bands. They’re both great songs — the former is full of youthful glee, while the latter is one of the most perfect pop songs of the millennium — but they’re nothing alike. “Stoned” is as sloppy as a bowl of soup, and “King of All the World” is, I dunno, beef jerky. Tight as that. In between those songs there’s a gradual shift, and it’s especially apparent in Rhett Miller’s vocals. The earliest songs on the disc, before the group moved to Elektra, feature some hyper-twangy singing, which, especially on “Stoned” and “Cryin’ Drunk”, straddles the line between sincerity and posturing. Beginning with the blitzkrieg of “Timebomb”, the first of the Elektra tracks, Miller starts chipping away at his mountain of vocal twang ’til it’s no taller than your average cow pie.
As the vocals become a bit more polished, the country elements of the music become more subdued, or at least they’re called upon more rarely. Listen to “Timebomb” on its own and it’s a barreling, drum-driven riff-rocker. Philip Peeples and Ken Bethea are brilliant in general, but this one’s a real winner. Taken in the context of this compilation, however, it’s entirely possible to hear “Timebomb” as something like electrified bluegrass, with the guitar strings attacked at a relentless speed. (The earlier “Doreen” could be classified the same way.) At the same time, the contemporaneous “Niteclub” is easy to recognize as a country song with prominent rock features, as well as this band’s entry into popular music’s massive library of songs about musicians on the road. And then “Four Leaf Clover” is something else entirely, featuring drumming straight out of the intro to “The Queen Is Dead” and a vocal cameo by the very urban Exene Cervenka.
While Old 97’s deal primarily in love songs — as Robert Christgau points out in his liner notes — the lyrics of the first third of the disc also feature plenty of references to drugs and booze. Just as the country music morphs into an occasionally country-inflected pop music, it’s interesting how the recklessness of the early lyrics gives way to the more introspective subject matter of the later stuff. It’s a long way from “I must’ve been stoned when this whole thing started” to the the haiku-simple “Question”: “Some day somebody’s gonna ask you / A question that you should say yes to / Once in your life / Maybe tonight I’ve got a question for you”. It’s a simple, two-verse, voice-and-guitar number, and possibly the most affecting song on this disc full of infectious, glorious music.
Since this is a Rhino release, of course the packaging is thoughtful, and of course there are some rarities tossed in for good measure. “Cryin’ Drunk” and “The Villain” are splendid tracks that previously only popped up on singles, and although another original number might’ve been a better fit, the Old 97’s version of “El Paso” is pretty fun.
I’m still not sure what to call the Old 97’s. “A damn good American band” will just have to do, and as an introduction to the Old 97’s, Hit by a Train simply can’t be beat.