The Old ’97s
While a certain amount of change and polishing of rough edges is to be expected if a band is to continue artistic growth, one wonders if Fight Songs isn’t a transitional album for the Old ’97s. It’s a solid effort, but it’ll be interesting to see what they come up with next.
When the Old ’97s roared out of Austin, Texas, a few years back, they were something a of a breath of fresh, if bitter air. Their sound combined the urgencies of punk and go-for-broke speed of bluegrass with the pathos of love gone seriously wrong of the best country. Lumped into the “alt-country” category, the ’97s kept critics and listeners guessing, and their major-label debut, Too Far to Care , was one of the best releases of 1997.
The band’s back for “Fight Songs,” their second album for Elektra, and the intelligently written, clever tunes of heartbreak and sorrow are still there. However, the outfit’s time with the majors shows somewhat, because that feverish, desperate punk raggedness that originally made the band so engaging is gone, for the most part. The edges on some tunes are replaced with a sound that may be radio friendly but doesn’t have quite the same punch as their past efforts.
With that in mind, the best tunes on Fight Songs are, predictably, the ones that stick to the formula that made the Old ’97s interesting in the first place. They reach that elusive perfect combination of country punk with “Let the Idiot Speak,” with lead singer Rhett Miller’s amazing voice and cleverly self-depreciating lyrics bouncing off the band’s breakneck attack. Guitarist Ken Bethea puts plenty of twang into his chord-heavy ripping, and the rhythm section of bassist Murray Hammond and drummer Philip Peeples is never fancy but always effective. The album’s best tune is probably the most restrained one, the closer “Valentine.” Miller’s lonesome voice drives deep into the hardest fact of love, the realization the end is here and it’s all his fault.
The rest of the tunes on the album, while good, are a little too polished to be as effective as they could be. Instead of the cowpunk sounds they do so well, the Old ’97s sound more like power-pop bands like Fastball for most of Fight Songs . That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, and when it works it works well, particularly on the charming “19” and the Tex-Mex flavored “What We Talk About.” The band is still able to rock out nasty-like, particularly on the clever “Crash on the Barrelhead” (perhaps a nod to country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons) and the ironic “Lonely Holiday.”