Posts Tagged ‘ Old 97’s ’

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-

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