Old 97’s | Twelfth | (ATO)
3 1/2 out of 5 stars
Love ‘em or not, it’s impossible not to respect the Old 97’s as an American musical institution of sorts. There aren’t many acts going strong for over a quarter century with their original lineup intact. And even though the Dallas based band have never headlined large arenas or cracked the commercial ceiling that would make them household names, it’s unlikely any Americana fan hasn’t heard their music or seen them live since 1994’s debut.
Some might complain the Old 97’s haven’t grown much from their initial musical incarnation;a canny combination of twangy country, driving rockabilly, and Brit styled pop led by the boyish vocals of frontman Rhett Miller. And while no one spent much time coming up with a title for their twelfth studio release (not including a Christmas collection of mostly originals and a roaring double live set), the group’s established elements remain firmly in place.
Album number twelve doesn’t reinvent the Old 97’s’ wheel. But health issues (drummer Brad Peeples cracked his skull falling on the pavement before heading out for 2017’s Graveyard Whistling’s tour, guitarist Ken Bethea underwent spinal surgery to regain his motor skills and, on the plus side, Miller got sober) have made them appreciate what they have already accomplished.
On the chiming Tom Petty-styled “Diamonds on Neptune,” Miller sings “You know I’m always on the move/Leavin’ is what I do/I go from neon sign to neon sign,” summarizing the life of a permanent musician. He revisits his alcoholic days with “Happy hour was all but wrong again” on “Happy Hour” and “Absence (What We Got)” with “And the wine turns into whiskey/And the whiskey turns to tears/It’s been this way for years.”
There isn’t much of the chugging rockabilly that kept the Old 97’s pumping throughout the years. But the energized, locomotive “Bottle Rocket” handles that sound with the energy and drive which powered these guys when they broke out as one of the Bloodshot label’s insurgent country rockers in 1995. On the bittersweet “I Like You Better,” Miller revisits his insecurities singing “I like you better than my self-doubt/That thing that never lets me go out of the house/That monster is my only friend”
on a ringing if somewhat chilling ballad that feels like a Byrds-B side.
Most of these tracks, even the two sung by bassist Murry Hammond, could have emerged from any previous Old 97’s collection. And even if they should have considered replacing the closing drowsy “Why Don’t We Ever Say We’re Sorry,” with something less snoozy, there are eleven other solid entries that bolster the band’s already impressive catalog.
There aren’t many that can keep the musical flame burning for this long and maintain the quality found here. If everyone’s health holds up, there is nothing stopping the Old 97’s from continuing their lengthy winning streak into the next few administrations.
We talked with the guys in advance of the album release, check that out here.