Old 97s were the best band to come out of the barely noticed, early '90s alt-country explosion. "Alt-country", did I say? It's true that the term has fallen out of favor, with almost all of its original exponents disowning it and fans preferring to use broader labels like "Americana", which can refer to anything from Grandpa Jones to the Palace Brothers, the real connection being anyone's guess. The truth is that "alt-country" was one out of a half-dozen labels in contention being thrown around in those days: No Depression (too obscure), cowpunk (too specific), y'allternative (the sound of a smart-ass journalist patting himself on the back), and others. But "alt-country" stuck. Me, I'll still use the term for the benefit of newbies who understand what "alternative rock" means and might be able to draw a rough comparison with "alternative country". And I'm not ashamed.
The thing about Old 97s is that they really were, at first, alt-country. Recognizably country, they chased their Hank and Lefty with David Bowie, Dick Dale and the Clash, and the results were frankly marvelous. The Jayhawks? Good, maybe, but only as alt-country as the Band. Early Wilco? Ditto. But these guys, if anyone, were country with a new, sharp edge. Ken Bethea's guitar rumbled and buzzed, but kept the twang; Murry Hammond thumped the bass with one spectacled eye on the history books and one on the future; Philip Peeples turned the familiar country train beat into a crazy runaway locomotive; and Rhett Miller sang and wrote the sexiest, snottiest, funniest, most pained and desperate songs you could hope to hear in your lifetime.
Of course, they changed; bands do that. Hitchhike to Rhome and Wreck Your Life mined similar territory, while Too Far to Care, their first major label release, upped the ante with a bigger, badder sound and a new knack for the anthem. Fight Songs followed -- a darker, more restrained record that was also their poppiest. One of the songs, "Murder or a Heart Attack", was great, straight power-pop, and ended up, deservedly, on the radio, earning the band TV appearances and some new fans who might not have heard of Ray Price (or Uncle Tupelo) but who liked the catchy chorus and Miller's dreamy good looks. After Fight Songs came Satellite Rides, which took the pop to a new plateau. A good record, but maybe a little too good: the rawness and desperate energy that had drawn me, and others, to the band in the first place seemed to have been largely replaced by perfection and precision. The songs were still smart and catchy, but it could be hard to see the substance through the sheen.
After that, Miller released The Instigator, making his bid for indie-rock teen idol status, a bid which seems to have mostly (and mercifully) failed -- though, again, the songs were good, if a little cutesy. And now, much to my excitement and curiosity, comes Drag It Up, their latest record.
From the first bar of the first song, "Won't Be Home", you can tell the boys have moved away from the walls of guitars and back-up vocals that characterized their last few records. Which is to say, they sound like a band, not a slick recording project. Recorded mostly live in a 19th century church on an analog 8-track, this is Old 97s proving that they can still function as a four-piece band without the aid of studio trickery. And prove it they do.
Yes, it is more country than their recent outings, but it isn't a throwback to their old sound, either. All four of the 97s are fathers now, and it would be a tad ridiculous if they tried to recapture the angst and youth they used to embody so effortlessly. This, instead, is the most well-rounded effort of their career: contemplative, spontaneous, goofy, serious, raw and frequently beautiful. The years have made them comfortable with a number of styles, from thrashy minor-key surf rock to Tex-Mex to the dark, mildly psychedelic "Valium Waltz", an old song that they finally arranged to their satisfaction.
There are a few rave-ups -- "Won't Be Home", "Smokers" -- but much of the record is taken up with the sad, languid country ballad, Old 97s style. Miller's songwriting has become perhaps a tad more traditional, but his characteristic mix of heartbreak, insolence and empathy hasn't faltered -- if anything, age and experience have made him an even better chronicler of the world's beautiful failures. In "Valium Waltz" he sings, "You're scoring her shipwrecks with fiddles and dobros / Laugh at the plainclothes, police the crowd / Carry her under like water or ether / Spirit her off when the music's too loud". That's just one verse; Drag It Up is filled with more evidence that Rhett Miller is one of today's most overlooked singer/songwriters.
There's no one song as instantly catchy as, say, "Bird in a Cage" from Satellite Rides, but this record is alive and human, with a roomy basement sound and vital, impassioned songs. Only the band could tell you for sure, but it sounds to this reviewer like Old 97s had their bid for super-stardom (they were dropped by Elektra; Drag It Up is on New West Records), didn't quite reach it, and decided instead to be what they've really always been: a great band, alt-country or otherwise.
In "Friends Forever", Miller lets his inner nerd out, recalling with his trademark wit the high school days before he discovered the guitar: "I was a debater / Was not a stoner nor an inline skater / Was not a player nor a player hater / I was just a bookworm on a respirator / Who's to say that's wrong". Looking back on adolescence and its attendant tortures and ecstasies from the perspective of veteran rock 'n' roller with kids, Old 97s have come full circle. This is a band I hope to see making records in 20 years; with Drag It Up I can finally see it happening.