Old 97′s – The Grand Theatre, Volume Two (Music Review)

The Grand Theatre, Volume Two cover

Old 97's - The Grand Theatre, Volume Two

Judging by the album artwork, the Old 97’s latest release tries to draw a sharp contrast from The Grand Theatre, Volume One. While that one featured a sweeping picture of a stately theater, Volume Two uses the high-contrast, washed-out aesthetic of DIY punk photocopies. The choice arguably has some merit, since this volume is focused more on the simple, repetitive rock that makes up the core of the Old 97’s sound. If it was meant to define the album, though, it’s a little disappointing: Volume One was most notable for its broad range, including a few songs in this very style. Volume Two, though it still features strong songwriting, feels more like a step back than an alternate approach.

The basic approach is a straightforward country-rock beat with simple vocals and upbeat guitar. These songs are usually showcases for clever lyrics, but when those fall flat (“You call it rain/I call it the parking lot gets a bath”), there’s little left to justify the song. However, the band’s best songs are noteworthy. “The Actor” is a catchy but despairing character study whose sparse style fit the washed-up title character, and “White Port” is a punk sea shanty that provides a welcome exception to the mostly-consistent sound of the album. “No Simple Machine” is a crowd-pleasing story about women and men who want more than the standard shallow love interests. I question the motives of the narrator of that song, who seems a bit more bitter and boastful than may have been intended, but it’s an example of the band’s lyrics at their finest.

Both Grande Theatre volumes have made the perhaps questionable choice of filling the middle of the album with standouts while starting and ending with the more generic or less notable songs. It’s not the best way to grab listeners, though it did make both albums fun to discover over time rather than all at once. Volume Two doesn’t quite live up to the standard set by the first, but it’s always great to hear a band with such excellent pop instincts refusing to stand still.

Grade: B-

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