Old 97’s – The Grand Theatre, Volume One (Music Review)

The Grand Theatre, Volume One cover

Old 97's - The Grand Theatre, Volume One

I have to admit that I’ve only paid attention to the Old 97’s sporadically. While Wreck Your Life is one of the classic albums of the alt-country era (it’s one of the first CDs I’ll point someone to if they’re curious about what country offers beyond the radio), most of their output is a lot more hit-and-miss. I’ve learned that a typical Old 97’s album has one or two great songs and a bunch of throwaway fluff. But I’m glad I decided to check out their 2010 album, The Grand Theatre, Volume One.

Grand Theatre finds the band with a much broader range than they did in their Bloodshot Records days. A couple of excellent country songs are found in the middle, and honestly, they’re still the highlight. Many of the tracks focus much more on the rock side of their “country-rock” formula, with mixed results. Overall, they have a Wilco-meets-Fountains of Wayne simplicity that speaks of older men confidently stepping into territory normally reserved for the young. When they focus on more complex musical arrangements that show off their country roots, such as the last half of “The Magician”, they give a rarely-heard depth to pop-rock. When the music takes a backstage to the sometimes pointless singing, such as the first half of “The Magician”, the only saving grace is that frontman Rhett Miller seems to be in a hurry to get the song over with.

Both for good and ill, those aren’t the only styles that the Old 97’s experiment with. A couple songs slip almost into a stoner vibe, but from very different directions: “You Were Born To Be In Battle” features Miller singing over a smooth, dark country groove, while the slow-building “Please Hold On While the Train Is Moving” could almost be a trippy Cracker outtake. Both are good, but per the usual Old 97’s rule, the country song is the memorable one.

The only complete failures on the album are the two attempts at smooth ballads, which are as insipid as their names imply (“Love Is What You Are” and “The Beauty Marks”). But the highlights are worth waiting for. “A State Of Texas” demonstrates just what the band was aiming for through the country-rock songs on the album, and succeeds enough to justify any missteps elsewhere. And “Champaign, Illinois” puts a brash, confident twist on the music from “Desolation Row” but provides completely new lyrics which, while maybe not Dylan-level, are still good enough to justify that bold move.

It appears that any Old 97’s album will be marked by highs and lows. However, The Grand Theatre’s highs are especially memorable, and most of the lesser tracks are still strong enough to add to the experience. This isn’t the sort of classic that I used to want from each Old 97’s release, but it’s a polished work from a band that sounds like they could keep doing this forever. After this album, I’ve accepted that that’s still a good thing.

Grade: B

  1. October 21st, 2011

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: