Much noise has been made over the past decade as we have seen bands that reveled in roots-rock rowdiness polish their tones a bit and venture into the waters of pop and even experimental sounds. Of course, for every Wilco, there’s a band like Son Volt – a band that has stayed the country-rock course.
While acts such as the Jay Farrar-led Son Volt, or even the Bottle Rockets, have managed to produce a decent number of quality, twangy releases, while other contemporaries have strayed into the world of rock, they have all done so with rotating rosters, and not with the original line-ups that helped create their well-known name.
A band that fits quite comfortably into the above sonic-shifting mix would be The Old 97’s. One key factor that seperates these four guys from the aforementioned bands? They’ve stayed together and kept the original line-up intact for all these years. In fact, the way in which the band has managed to effectively handle the various situations that have led many a group to break-up is as remarkable as the fact that the music they are creating has every bit of edge, spunk and relevance as it did when they first cashed in their major label chips with 1997.
The Old 97’s have indeed endured uncertain times over their almost two decades together. Rhett Miller’s attempts at solo-stardom, and the everyday intricacies of starting families and living adult lives have all threatened to induce change in their structure, but have yet to actually bring such alterations about.
Of course, a few years ago, upon the release of Fight Songs and especially Satellite Rides, it wasn’t the change in personnel that many fans were nervous about. The more slickly polished, pop-rock flavored tones of Satellite Rides were a clear departure from the group’s cow-punk beginnings. While that album has now come to be viewed favorably, it’s safe to assume that their new record, The Grand Theatre, Vol 1, is the album that those troubled by the poppier direction would’ve appreciated, all those years ago.
On this new album, out on Oct 12 from New West, anthems are a plenty. Also, few songs this year will boast a more sweeping, joyous and perfectly-suited chorus than “A State of Texas.” Even though Miller and bass player Murry Hammond are no longer residents of the Lone Star State, it’s made clear on this standout track that one’s mailing address doesn’t define where one’s soul lives.
Miller’s trademark wit and clever wordplay also finds its proper place, up front and center. “Every Night is Friday Night (Without You)” and “Champaign, Illinois” are, quite simply, killer, alt-country classics. Throughout the twelve song collection, blasting beats and urgent guitar command their share of attention, as well.
Sure, 2008’s Blame it on Gravity contained evidence of a band returning to their earlier sound, but that chugging, rollicking sonic wasn’t as prevalent as it is in this excellent return to form. At times, as one listens to the new album, it might be necessary for the listener to remind themselves that they are in fact, listening to the new album, and not Hitchhike to Rhome or Too Far Too Care.
That’s not a bad thing, in this instance, either. The Old 97’s understand that progression isn’t necessarily a matter of continuing a path that leads one away from where they began. Progression is often a matter of development – the following of a muse that simply knows where one belongs.
Judging by one of this year’s best albums, it’s clear that this is a band who knows where they belong, and are glad to be back.
About the author: I likes me some wine, women and waffles, not always in that order (but usually). Chaucer is cool, but fart jokes are even better. You feel like spikin' your country with a little soul or mix in a little rock without the roll? Lemme hear from ya!!