Aband with an identity crisis isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially when the crisis is more with the band's fans than with the band itself. The Old 97's are a fine example of a group that has thrived with its dual nature intact, satisfying two audiences along the way.
Earning the alt-country tag with its earliest efforts in the mid-1990s, the Dallas band gradually bled more and more power pop. With each new album it became a little less country, a little more rock. Yet even as the studio recordings reflected this change, in concert the band was always willing to revisit its country-esque roots, much to the delight of many of its longtime fans.
On the just-released "Drag It Up," the band, for the most part, slips back into the stripped-down country style that marked the beginning of its career. The shift is most apparent on the full-speed shuffles "Friends Forever" and "Won't Be Home" (musically, at least, these songs are twins) and "Blinding Sheets of Rain," a good old-fashioned weeper. There are hints of the band's alt-country past as well on "Valium Waltz" and "In the Satellite Rides a Star," two psychedelic slow drones that sound like country as imagined by stoners.
It's not a complete reversal, however. A few twang-free songs serve as reminders that the band won't allow itself to be lumped easily into one category. Singer and guitarist Rhett Miller, the band's clever wordsmith who put out a solo album, "The Instigator" in 2002, handles most of the lead duties. He can do the country stuff just fine thanks, but Brit-rock influences shine through on "The New Kid," and he does a folksy turn as well with the haunting "Adelaide," a melancholy number that somehow brings to mind Indigo Girls' "Closer to Fine." Hopefully that comparison won't ruin the song for any of the band's fans.
As with its previous albums, the songwriting on this new Old 97's record is what stands out. Miller is a playful writer who is a genius at dreaming up gems like "Looking down she tells you things are looking up," and "I was in the chess club / Didn't have a swimming pool much less a true love." Some of that cleverness must have rubbed off on guitarist Ken Bethea, who takes the lead on "Coahuila" and manages to rhyme "ravioli" with "lonely," and "Hannah" with "Louisiana," and make it all work. There's more smart writing on the grim "Smokers," where Murry Hammond muses, "It's two o'clock. Black and white. Ceiling's got no good advice." Finally, on the plaintive "No Mother," the album's too, too sad closing track written for a friend who was killed by a drunk driver, Miller sings, "No no no mother should ever have to lose a son / no no no never especially not such a handsome one."
Maybe Miller, Hammond, Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples made a conscious effort to go back to their alt-country beginnings with this album. What it sounds like more, though, is that they made an album they were comfortable with rather than trying to sound like anything specific at all. And that's a surefire way to get rid of any identity crisis -- for them and their fans alike.
The Old 97's will perform at the 9:30 club on Sept 26.