Tuesday, June 3

Train Disaster Songs for the Soul

Artist: Old 97's
Album: Blame it on Gravity

Comments: Four years ago, the Old 97's seemed dead in the water. Besides a few good cuts, their sixth album, Drag it Up, played like, well, a drag and lead singer and songwriter Rhett Miller was more focused on releasing his second solo album, The Believer, then revitalizing the alt-country powerhouse that allowed him such indulgences. Even the most optimistic fans couldn't help shake the feeling that the boys wouldn't be back in town.

When bands go into slumps, the pandering usually begins. The limping group looks to please their core fans by attempting to return to their "old" sound. This strategy fails more often than not; either the band is too far gone to recapture their earlier magic or the fans recognize the efforts as hollow and pale when compared to the good stuff. If this is applied to the Old 97's, one would assume that their 7th studio album, Blame it on Gravity, would be a flaccid attempt at returning to more of the alt-country rock that won hearts on albums like Too Far To Care and Wreck Your Life.

Thankfully, that assumption is only half right. Blame it on Gravity does move away from the white-teeth, mix-tape pop of the band's later records and more towards their Texas cow-punk roots. But the album is anything but flaccid. In fact, it's the most focused and well-constructed album since their 1998 masterpiece, Too Far to Care.

From note one of "The Fool," its obvious that the boys are back in town. The rhythm section, long one of the tightest in the land, sounds as seaworthy as ever, and main ax man Ken Bethea is once again cutting songs to ribbons with big rock licks that play like distorted sunsets. While the song is desperately in need of a stronger hook, it's great to hear the dudes rocking out again.

Things pick up on "Dance with Me," a song about naive girls on vacation and the cynical locals who dance with them. It's a bitter, clever track that plays like a mariachi revenge song and is as close to snarling as Miller has come in years. The band once again shines, taking their country rock and displaying it through a south-of-the-boarder setting. Miller's songwriting is a sharp as ever, still mixing his trademark razor-sharp wit and "down-on-my-luck-lover" persona with fantastic results.

Everything on the album plays like homecoming; the band sounds refreshed and ready for the first time in years. All the wheels spin cleanly; the rockers rock (the aforementioned "Dance with Me" and the thumping,jumping "Early Morning"), and the ballads are a punchy and sweet as they've ever been (No Baby I, I Will Remain).

The albums two finest tracks play back to back at the end of the album, and serve as the exclamation point to the band's revival. Album closer "The One," a song about the band robbing banks across the southwest, is currently The Number One Summer Jam at Left of the Dial. Bethea's guitar provides the catchy melody that is the backbone of this would-be hit, while Miller's honey-sweet voice paints the band as the most charming bandits ever to steal a dime. The other standout is the slow, melancholy waltz of "The Color of a Lonely Heart is Blue," which is given density and weight by bassist Murray Hammond's dog-sad croon. While "The One" is more flashy, more instantly likable, it is the tender longing of "Lonely Heart" that will stick to the ribs long after the album has left the disc changer.

Sure, there are nits to pick. The rocking pace of the album hurts a few of the more poppy numbers. Bethea's guitar does tend to walk over a few songs. And the country twang comes off as cheesy shmatlz on one track, the runty "She Loves The Sunset." Still, Blame it on Gravity is a high water mark for a band that seemed all but finished four years ago. With Miller's romantic heart beating and his poet's tongue wagging, coupled with the determined pace of the rhythm section and Bethea's guitar going for the throat, it's hard to find a better alt-country band than the Old 97's.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Key Tracks: The One, Color of a Lonely Heart is Blue, Dance with Me, I Will Remain, No Baby I, Here's to the Halcyon

Buy, Steal, Skip: Buy it, fool.

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