On "Victoria," the opening cut off the Old 97's 1994 release Wreck Your Life, front man Rhett Miller sings, "This is a song about Victoria's heart/You might think it's stupid but I still think it's art." In truth the same sentiment could be applied to the music of the Old 97's. The band has always specialized in songs about the heart--often aching, and sometimes filtered through with touches of wry humor--but always done with the understanding that even the most simple songs of love and loss could pass the test of great art. With the newly released Fight Songs, the Dallas quartet continues to explore its emotional scars, and in the process makes an aesthetic jump from its well-defined alternative country sound into more ornate pop territory.
The runaway-locomotive beat that defined, and in some ways limited, the Old 97's previous material is gone. In its place is a crisp tunefulness that owes more to British Invasion pop than to Nashville twang.
While it may not be as angst-ridden or as ambitious as the grand sentiment that fellow alt-country-gone-pop band Wilco succeeded in capturing on this year's riveting Summerteeth, Fight Songs is no less appealing an album.
The disc opens with the cry-for-help anthem "Jagged." Miller's crooning falsetto rises and falls on a track that's somewhere between the power pop of the Posies and the dystopian country of Neil Young. Elsewhere, songs like "19" and "Indefinitely" showcase Miller's uncanny knack for capturing the absorbed postadolescent self-pity that we've all probably felt, but would be too embarrassed to admit to.
It should be hard to feel sorry for Miller, an artist who's long carried the image of a pretty boy with a perpetually broken heart. Still, there's something so earnest and genuinely painful in his reading of a line like "If you don't love me, would you please pretend?" (from the ultra-mopey "Lonely Holiday") that it makes you want to buy him a beer, pat him on the back and tell him that everything's going to be all right.
The band is equally adept at tacking lighter-sounding fare such as instantly infectious numbers like "Oppenheimer" and "Busted Afternoon."
If nothing else, the gentle touches of hand claps, backing "oohs" and "ahhs" and Vox organ are a clear indication that the group has left the stomping pseudo-twang of its past behind.
Although most of the praise (or blame) for the album will be placed on Miller's shoulders as the group's highly visible front man, the Old 97's music has always been the result of a genuine group collaboration. The spiky guitar runs of Ken Bethea, the precise drumming of Phillip Peeples and Murry Hammond's melodic bass and backing vocals have long been the bedrock of the group's sound. On this record in particular, that stability allows Miller to take the kind of lyrical and vocal risks that might have come off sounding trite in the hands of a lesser group of musicians.
Ironically, the album's high point comes with the Hammond-penned acoustic closer, "Valentine," which sounds like a forgotten classic from Ricky Nelson's late-'50s heyday. The track's gentle country rhythm lilts along to lyrics that are so subtly convincing you almost forget how depressing the irony of the song really is ("Of all the many ways a man can lose his home/Well, there ain't none better than the girl who's moving on").
Among its many triumphs, the one great failing of Fight Songs is that Miller's boyish brashness seems to have been cosmeticized into something more polished. The tongue-in-cheek bravado of "Barrier Reef" ("My name's Stuart Ransom Miller/I'm a serial lady killer") from 1997's Too Far Too Care would not only seem out of place, but out of character for Miller's new songwriting identity. While the band hasn't softened, it would be fair to say that the edges have been smoothed out. It's a move that's understandable, as the album is clearly the band's big stab at mainstream commercial success. While some alt-country denizens may cry "sellout," in the end it's hard to find a compelling argument against such a tight and appealing collection of pop songcraft.
The one thing Backsliders front man Chip Robinson won't ever be accused of is being "too pop." As the title suggests, the band's latest release, Southern Lines, digs deeper into the hard-core country and roots sound that the group displayed on its debut EP, From Raleigh, North Carolina, and on its 1997 long-player, Throwin' Rocks at the Moon.
On its full-length debut (produced by Dwight Yoakam guitarist Pete Anderson), the band sampled a mix of diverse country styles ranging from the Bakersfield sound to the more familiar echoes of its North Carolina home. In the process, the group displayed a penchant for playing a unique brand of rowdy backwoods rock. With the assistance of new producer Eric Ambel (Bottle Rockets, Go to Blazes), the group has refined its sound to focus on the visceral power of Robinson's songs. This is especially evident on the album's first cut, "Abe Lincoln." With Brad Rice's tasteful guitar licks mixed discreetly in the background, the song's potent imagery takes center stage ("You're fading slow/Like a bloodstain on my sleeve/And I'm learning faster and faster/Just what it takes to leave").
Although the album is not without its flaws (the monotonous shuffle of "Don't Ask Me Why" being the main one), Robinson's phrasing and rich vocal delivery seem to save it at every turn, even breathing new life into the country cliches of "The Lonely One" and "Two Candles."
Although the album has a number of effective musical contributions (most notably the steel guitar of former Buckaroo Tom Brumley), its strongest moments feature Robinson alone with just his guitar. His tar-and-whiskey vocals speak volumes on the intentionally underproduced "Psychic Friend"--which sounds as if it were recorded in an empty, darkened room somewhere.
Curiously, the haunting title track appears as a hidden cut after the last song. With assistance from former dB and current Continental Drifter Peter Holsapple on harmonium, Robinson's evocative ode to the unchanging nature of his cultural roots provides a fitting end to an album that's full of as much Southern soul as country bounce.
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