Over the course of eight studio albums and a handful of great live recordings, the Old 97s have gone about rendering one of the finest catalogs of any band in recent history. Rarely straying from their established formula of twanging hard-luck tales, bullish bar room rockers and lovelorn 3 a.m. valentines, frontman Rhett Miller and company have evolved into something like America’s answer to the Pogues: wry and poignant chroniclers of life lived on the edge, with all its attendant rhapsodies and regrets.
Their energetic new album, “The Grand Theatre Vol. 2,” continues the Old 97s’ long winning streak with the sort of cavalier excellence that makes the arduous sound easy. Highlights abound. “The Actor” is a Stonesy, three-chord stomper that dissects the psychology of an insecure performer with typically caustic insight: “He sews a button on his favorite shirt / Because he feels like that’s what his character would do.”
On the Faces-style shuffle “No Simple Machine,” Miller wraps his beautifully strangled warble around the opening lines: “He said ‘Can I buy you a drink?’ / What he meant was ‘can I buy you?,’ ” managing to sound at once indignant at the fraudulence of this pickup gambit and jealous that it just might work. It’s not surprising that the narrative nearly ends in a fistfight.
The lovely, resigned ballad “Manhattan (I’m Done)” sounds like the morning after, a farewell to a doomed love affair with a desperate romantic’s touch: “I believe in tuxedos / blue moons and early Beatles.”
Nearly two decades in, the Old 97s are in fine fighting form, demonstrating none of the creative attrition common to acts of a similar vintage. Long may they brawl.
“The Actor,” “No Simple Machine,” “Manhattan (I’m Done)”