Ride On

The Old 97's: From left, Philip Peeples, Murry Hammond, Rhett Miller and Ken Bethea.

"Two nights ago in Manhattan, I was onstage thinking that there's something very cheap about this job," Rhett Miller says, via phone from the roof of a nightclub in Baltimore. Miller, singer-guitarist for the Old 97's and band-proclaimed "face man," is loading in for a show at the beginning of a promotional tour, and though it's only a week into the tour, the wiry, energetic musician is exhausted.

The tour will eventually end in Dallas, where Miller grew up and his bandmates still live. As the Old 97's stand at the beginning of what will certainly be a long road in support of Satellite Rides, their fifth album and third for Elektra Records, Miller is tired, sure, but he's also happy. And while he downplays his success somewhat -- "We're by no means rock stars," he says -- it feels like he's finally made it.

"On the one hand, your life is, in moments, uncomfortable," Miller admits, lamenting his seventh straight night of performing, the feeling of being "owned" by a record label (Elektra), and the seemingly endless "radio visits and record-store things, interviews, phoners, and photo shoots." "On the other hand, you're getting to live your dream. I feel really lucky, and I feel really good about it. I feel like we worked hard. It would be nice to be at a point where it was really comfortable and that it felt more like being at home. Maybe like Willie Nelson is, where your home is sort of your bus, and you can have your family with you and you don't have to run around doing the meet-and-greets and the grip-and-grins and the radio visits quite as much because you're more established. But I'll take what I've got now. I don't mean to be ungrateful."

Miller should be grateful, and he's right: The band has worked hard. He's been wrenching infatuated tales from his lovesick heart since he was a teenage folk prodigy, eventually forming the Old 97's in 1993. Five albums later, Satellite Rides marks the band's reclamation of the loud, desperate, backwoods feedback that initially magnetized fans. While the band's previous album, Fight Songs, was a fine vehicle for convincing Elektra of its commercial appeal, Satellite Rides is the Old 97's slamming that vehicle into a wall and recording the pieces shattering.

On Fight Songs, the band was so removed from its previous sound (unflinching and rowdy) and so close to Tom Petty's (middle-aged and inconsequential) that it seemed the band members had lost their luster and their will. Had they matured to the point where Miller was no longer interested in writing his trademark, self-deprecating love songs, and was the band no longer able to rock?

Satellite Rides responds with an affirmative return to the sound of the band's major-label debut Too Far to Care. That means plenty of clever word play and fat, angular guitar riffs. This time the production is finer, the vocals are stellar, and the group's experimentation in the studio has yielded some of the prettiest and most exciting moments of its career.

For instance: Bassist Murry Hammond contributes the foreboding "Up the Devil's Pay," which spotlights some of the group's best vocals yet. The track features lovely, nearly psychedelic yodeling from Hammond and Miller, testifying to Hammond's precious worth to this band. "Buick City Complex" is one of Miller's patented somber, steady tales of loneliness and anxiety ("I don't wanna settle down/I don't wanna make no plans/Except for what I'm gonna do with a pair of idle hands"). "Question" is a sweet-and-simple, man-and-his-guitar number, wherein the singer asks his girl "a question that you should say yes to, once in your life." It's further proof that Miller is an accomplished songwriter in need of no gimmickry to play it straight and smart.

Flipping that coin, "Bird in a Cage" is the pinnacle of Miller's wit, delivering more clever lines than Domino's does pizzas. (Sample: "A bird in the hand is worth a bird in a cage is worth a bird on a telephone wire.") "Am I Too Late?" is also vintage 97's: fast, twangy and flypaper-catchy. "Book of Poems" is a surprise with its Sugar-like full-throttle drive, the kind of song white guys of a certain age usually produce, and, in this case, that's a good thing.

Closing out Satellite Rides, "Nervous Guy" has the same miserable disposition as "Stoned," from the 97's full-length debut Hitchhike to Rhome, or maybe "Curtain Calls" from Too Far to Care. This time around, however, the song is fleshed out by Ken Bethea's howling guitar and Miller's wailing ("Goodbye, from a nervous guy") to full melancholic effect. With lines such as "In the way you cross your legs/In the way my right hand shakes/I can see how this thing is gonna end," Miller demonstrates his ability to hone in on a moment and resonate its tragedy. Or, as Miller puts it, "crystallizing some sort of pain or joy."  

"A lot of this record was written before I was happy," Miller reveals. "The stuff that was written afterwards like 'Question' and 'King of All the World' are obviously not gut-wrenching, love-gone-wrong songs. That's been a concern of mine. As I age and as I become less tortured, is it going to take a toll on my output? I've got a couple of really great new songs, one of which is really tortured, so I feel like I'm going to be able to tap into enough of a narrative voice that I can get away with exorcising some of my leftover angst from my teen years." Miller adds smugly, "It's going to last me into middle age."

The best thing about listening to Satellite Rides is that the disc captures the loose, frenetic feel of the band's live sets. It's 1 a.m., and Miller's entire head and torso are saturated with sweat, rendering his customary head-banging a virtual front-row shower. Hammond and Bethea have loosened up, while drummer Philip Peeples has gotten tighter and faster and faster, until the whole thing teeters on collapse. But before that happens, the boys run offstage just long enough to catch their breath, down a drink, and rest their fingers in time for an encore.

"I guess we've been doing it long enough to where I can feel that kind of thing coming on," Miller says, referring to the potential for disaster that a week with no sleep produces. "In the old days, it would have become a punk rock show of the Old 97's, just crazy. Now I feel like, 'You know, I can do this.' I can just take it over and make this a good rock 'n' roll show and not let it spin wildly out of control and become a train wreck."

Satellite Rides is the sound of a band finally getting comfortable with its responsibility to a major label (producing radio-friendly songs) while still being true to its musical impulses (twang, fire, depression). It's a balancing act, for sure. It all is.

Peeples and Bethea have, in the last few years, married and had children, while Miller relocated from Dallas to Los Angeles four years ago and is now bicoastal, keeping an additional apartment in New York. Miller sounds mature. In fact, he sounds like an aware, 30-year-old front man with a major-label deal in tow and reality in check.

"You can't go back, literally and figuratively," Miller says of his formative years. "Like being young and wanting to get drunk every morning when I woke, or whatever -- just wanting to be crazy all the time -- wanting to have that kind of life that a 19- [or] 26-year-old struggling musician has. I couldn't go back to those days, and I could never be the person that enjoyed living the way I was living back then. I think back on a lot of the stuff that happened in [the early years], and those were really good days, but they seem so sepia-toned now, you know, so far away. At this point, home is a very fluid idea."

Miller seems particularly reflective considering his onstage persona, where he's known for his spastic, even reckless performances. The man on the other end of the line is sober and realistic, but still coy and animated. He apologizes for his incomplete sentences and bad jokes and worries that his quotes will sound egotistical or politically incorrect. Still, he's confident about the decisions his band has made since signing with Elektra, defending its move from the independent Bloodshot Records. It's been more than four years since that transition, but there's residual "free-floating animosity" from certain corners still holding a grudge against the band for any resulting success.

"It was during the promotion of Too Far to Care that we had a collective realization within our band that the concept of moral integrity cannot really be applied to a career in music," Miller says. "We just knew that we needed widespread distribution to achieve the kind of success that would allow us to keep doing what we wanted to do. It's a stupid trap to get caught in to think that if you sell too many records, it's bad, but if you sell just enough . . . if you let them market you, then it's bad because the music should sell itself. But how would anybody ever hear it? It's sort of a pointless argument that's only ever really championed in earnest by people who, um . . . who have been cast over by their dreams!" Miller spits out, after brief hesitation, laughing, then moaning at what he fears is going to read "really, really badly."  

"Yeah, it's a weird life, but what are the choices?" Miller says, in summary. "Nobody reads poetry anymore; I can't do that and make a living. I don't know that I'm a good enough novelist and I do know that I can write songs, so this is what I'm stuck with. Some nights it really feels cathartic, like I'm doing something good, like I'm putting something good into the world. And some nights it just feels like I'm an attention hog, like I'm a court jester. Ken talks about that a lot, too. He's like, 'It's true. We go around and we're the entertainment.' And while that's cool, there's also something inherently ignoble about it, frivolous, you know? It exists for that moment while you're standing in the bar in order to give you an excuse to drink beer, and then it's gone. Someday I'll be lying on a deathbed going, 'Did all those moments add up to something good?' I hope so."

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