The Old 97's hold a special place in my heart. Back in 1998, they very nearly singlehandedly shook me out of post-breakup depression. After a couple of months of moping, I drove to Chicago from my home in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to visit my sister. She suggested we go out to the Metro to see this band she really liked at the time, The Old 97's. (Mind you, this is at the height of the alt-country explosion, which more or less detonated in that city.)
I'm always skeptical about buzz bands (which they were at the time), but they put on a top-flight rock show, a band with the complete package -- strong material, hooks, looks, energy, and one of the best drummers you're likely to see. From that night on, I listened to their breakout LP, Too Far Too Care, incessantly and drove down to Chicago three months later to cram into the Lounge Ax for an even better show.
Then the major labels started calling, signed up the Dallas band, and released a series of increasingly poppy, overproduced, and profoundly less interesting records. I tried to stick with them but, as these guys morphed into true professionals, they'd all but lost their ragged charm. Still, their slick pop songs couldn't sell the volume of records the majors had hoped for. Singer Rhett Miller put out a couple of radio-ready singer-songwriter collections and The Old 97's, at that point, seemed to be side project for Miller.
Now, after a couple of decent if not revelatory records for indie alt-country label New West, the band is back with The Grand Theatre Volume One. The band sounds as tight as ever and has stripped away some of the sheen that covered records like Fight Songs and Satellite Rides. Three or four songs into The Grand Theatre, The Old 97's sound like a band simply trying to ape the unhinged alt-country sound that made them almost famous -- t
he near-constant harmonies, the shuffles and runaway train beats, Ken Bethea's unconventional lead guitar playing, and the Rhett Miller's knack at turning a phrase
But somewhere around track 5, "The Dance Class," an amped-up pub rocker, the band sounds refreshed and ready to set off in a new direction, and it's good to hear. And drummer Philip Peeples is still one of the best around.
Best song: "Please Hold On While the Train Is Moving," a song that would make vintage Tom Petty proud.
Deja Vu: The sound of a band coming into its own -- again.
I'd rather listen to: Too Far Too Care remains one of my favorite discs from the 1990s.
Nothing Not New" is a yearlong project in which New Times editorial operations manager Jay Bennett, a 41-year-old music fan and musician, will listen only to music released in 2010. Each Monday through Friday, he will listen to one new record (no best ofs, reissues, or concert recordings) and write about it. Why? Because in the words of his editor, Martin Cizmar, he suffers from "aesthetic atrophy," a wasting away of one's ability to embrace new and different music as one ages. Read more about this all-too-common ailment here.