The Grand Theatre, Vol. 1
The eighth studio album from alt-country rockers Old 97’s is a tale of two albums. The good news is you’ll probably like both of them. The even better news is that there’s more on the way next year because the sessions for the album reportedly produced more than two dozen tracks.
But back to this album and its two halves. The first half is the one you’ll immediately recognize as the Old 97’s you know and love. Things get off to a rollicking start with the title track, which vocalist Rhett Miller penned backstage at the titular Leeds, England venue when he was on tour with Steve Earle last year. The song has punch, Ken Bethea’s urgent guitar work, a loping but rock solid rhythm section, and the always smooth, angelic backing vocals of bassist Murry Hammond to recommend it.
The ’60s garage-rock style first single, “Every Night Is Friday Night (Without You),” is a bit of a generic, silly party tune. You’d think that the band would have moved beyond this kind of stuff. Miller’s straining vocal doesn’t do the song any favors. “When I was young, I was dumb as a rock / I could not read a clock,” he sings. While I’m sure it will be impressively tight live, it’s a bit of a disappointment as a first single.
“The Magician” gets off to a typically Old 97’s style galloping start before settling into verses that don’t really go anywhere. Fortunately there is a payoff with a typically great melodic chorus that elevates the song beyond also-ran status.
Hammond, the bassist, takes over lead vocals for “You Were Born to Be in Battle.” It’s the kind of twangy, corny, Johnny Cash-style country and Western we’ve heard him do before. Not bad but nothing special.
“The Dance Class,” with a slightly unhinged Miller vocal, has energy to spare. “I am in love with whoever you are,” he sings with abandon. Underrated drummer Philip Peeples is the band’s secret weapon here.
Bethea’s trademark Telecaster twang guitar work provides the perfect accompaniment to the much more laid back groove of “Let the Whiskey Take the Reins.”
That’s the first half of the album. As such, it wouldn’t be a bad Old 97’s record all by itself. Fortunately the band still has a few tricks up their sleeves, and the second half really pulls out all the stops.
Miller rewrites the words to Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” for “Champaign, Illinois,” a kiss-off to the titular city that brings to mind the Bottle Rockets working man aesthetic and humor. “If you die, fear in God, and painfully employed / No you will not go to heaven / You’ll go to Champaign, Illinois,” Miller sings.
“A State of Texas,” another galloping train of a song, deserves serious consideration as the new state song of Texas. Likely to be a set closing crowd pleaser for years to come, especially in the Lone Star State, it may be the perfect Old 97’s song with shout-outs to Austin, Big D, San Antonio, and El Paso. This one should have been the first single.
Speaking of trains, “Please Hold On While the Train Is Moving” rocks with abandon and impresses with its depth and drive. It’s fashioned as sort of a suite with a song within the song that breaks things down to a distorted-guitar backed groove, something like the Beatles’ “Revolution.” Then it ramps back into the main song with even more verve. This one is destined to be great live as well.
Hammond’s “You Smoke Too Much” is much more interesting than his other album contribution with a vocal that extends his range. Bethea, as usual, comes up with the perfect guitar part.
“Love Is What You Are” sounds like it would fit in nicely on one of Miller’s solo albums. There’s a touch of late ’60s psychedelia and a beautiful, open sounding 12-string guitar solo from Bethea that make the tune something special and unique in the band’s canon.
“I love the very idea of you,” Miller sings on the pretty, airy set closer “The Beauty Marks,” an after-hours, noir-flavored gem that could be the soundtrack to a Hopper painting.
The Grand Theatre Volume One has me salivating to hear Volume Two. If it sounds anything like the first half of Volume One, I’m sure it will be a terrific Old 97’s record. But if there’s some of the experimental and interesting stuff like the tunes on the second half of this record still in the vaults, the next one could be something really special. Old 97’s sounds like a band that has hit its second wind. Their focus is back, and they are again exploding with great taut pop songs, some familiar and some destined to take us to places we haven’t been before. I’m sensing a great train ride ahead.
Old 97’s: old97s.com