Old 97's

The Grand Theatre Volume 1

(New West; 2010)

By Maura McAndrew | 23 October 2010

Old 97’s are aging gracefully, and thankfully not in that Elvis Costello-fedora-and-jazz-standards kind of way. The band burst onto the scene back in 1994 with the drawling cow-punk of Hitchhike to Rhome. What followed was a deal with Elektra, a refined power-pop sound, and a decade of almost-stardom. In recent years, however, they’ve stopped chasing fame, settling in with New West and pursuing solo projects while also managing to mature as a band. Well…“settling” may be the wrong word, here. Their ninth album, The Grand Theatre Volume 1 (Volume 2 comes in 2011), finds them continuing to push themselves in new directions. There’s still a bit of the Old 97’s patented shit-kicking rock ’n roll, though the best music on The Grand Theatre reveals the band’s talent for crafting darker, moodier melodies. Frontman Rhett Miller is trading his sexy outlaw shtick for a creepy-old-man one, and it’s the best he’s ever sounded.

As a longtime fan, I’m of the opinion that Old 97’s have never really gotten their due. I suspect the main problem is that they are truly alt-country, a genre that doesn’t get much press in a post-Uncle Tupelo world. During the Elektra years (Fight Songs [1999] and Satellite Rides [2001], especially), the band toned down the country influence in search of mainstream success, but lost the loose-limbed glee of early favorites like “If My Heart Was a Car” and “Dressing Room Walls.” The country influence has slowly crept back in, mostly thanks to bassist Murry Hammond, whose love of early American country and gospel became especially apparent on his breathtaking 2008 solo album. Though most of the songs here are Miller’s, The Grand Theatre relies on Hammond’s presence more than any past Old 97’s record.

The album has a rough-hewn quality well suited to a band known for good live shows. Gone are the clean, chiming guitars of Satellite Rides; Ken Bethea’s guitar here is sludgy and gear-grinding, occasionally clanging a bright minor chord like a warning siren. Opener “The Grand Theatre” recalls Fight Songs highlight “Jagged,” but with less polish and more boot-tripping drum work from Philip Peeples. Even the standard Old 97’s rave-ups (“Every Night is Friday Night (Without You)” and the kind-of-lame “A State of Texas”) have a live feel to them that can be partially attributed to the appealing way Miller’s voice has matured: it’s less boyish, more textured and gruff. The album starts to get interesting with “You Were Born to Be in Battle,” a dusty country number sung by Hammond, who conjures the ghost of Johnny Cash with smoky, half-swallowed syllables. Miller follows up with “The Dance Class,” a creaking, frustrated minor key tale about an agoraphobic leering through his window at an unsuspecting woman. “I am in love with whoever you are,” he sings, and admits “it’s been a year since I went out.”

This theme of isolation and half-baked regret continues on The Grand Theatre‘s best and most surprising track, “Let the Whiskey Take the Reins,” a slow, menacing country shuffle. Miller’s tense, quiet vocal performance suggests a paranoid man imparting long-held secrets: “I had a terrible vision,” he whispers, “of a world outside of this bar.” It’s a transfixing moment, and the rest of the album feels awash in its wake.

Other highlights include Hammond’s “You Smoke Too Much,” the (Dylan-approved) “Desolation Row” rewrite “Champaign, Illinois,” and album closer “The Beauty Marks,” which centers on another of Miller’s wild-eyed, whiskey-drinking protagonists. “I love the very idea of you,” he sighs, describing tall boots, eyeliner, and all the ways a lonely man can get wrapped up in a fantasy. Bethea’s guitar rings out unsettlingly as if to jolt Miller from his daydream. The song flips back and forth between first and second person, and the result is distancing and somewhat disorienting. It’s a sign that Miller is ready to stop dealing in his own charm and good looks; he’s trying on different, and sometimes unfavorable, personas.

It’s this aura of creepiness that makes The Grand Theatre one of the band’s best albums to date. I’ll always love the honky-tonk-on-fire energy of the Old 97’s most popular material, but it’s good to know that when the fire burns out, there’s a darker, quieter side to explore.

:: myspace.com/theold97s