Excepting his thoughts on “Smokers,” this is hands down my favorite review of Drag It Up so far.

No Depression – July/August 2004

Dancing Like Nobody’s Watching

Old 97’s

Drag It Up

New West

By Peter Blackstock

Of the half-dozen records the Old 97’s have made over the past decade, “Drag It Up is our most personal,” guitarist Ken Bethea writes in a brief band biography that accompanied press mailings of the group’s new disc. He’s right on target in his assessment; that much is obvious simply from the inclusion of “Coahuila,” which features a lead vocal from Bethea – his first-ever in the band’s recorded output.

“Coahuila” is a goofy, almost amateurish little ditty, kicking off with the outlandishly mundane lyric, “I turn my microwave on and I cook my chicken ravioli.” It’s the kind of number that, in the height of the band’s brass-ring pursuits during their major-label days with Elektra Records, would’ve been laughed right out of the boardroom.

And yet, there’s something effortlessly, infectiously fun about the track. As Bethea warbles along, only occasionally on-key, about a little brown-haired border girl, with drummer Philip Peeples’ Tex-Mex rhythm bouncing along for the ride, it’s hard not to just…smile. This is the sound of a band that doesn’t have to try so hard anymore, and is content to simply be themselves.

Drag It Up is also very much the sound of the Old 97’s as established many moons ago, Bethea’s surprise vocal turn notwithstanding. Much of the album is vintage 97’s; when Bethea’s big fat guitar twang introduces the album’s first song (“Won’t Be Home No More”) and charges straight into Peeples’ chucka-chucka trainbeat, we’re right back on the same track that sent us such staples as “Victoria” and “House That Used to Be.”

Similarly reassuring to the band’s longtime fan base are such songs as “The New Kid,” a midtempo rocker built on carefully clever word play (“He’s got the goods, but he’s no good for his word”), and “Friends Forever,” a rapid-fire pop anthem in the vein of “Let The Idiot Speak” that champions those cast aside from the high school “in” crowd (“went out for the football team / Found out the hard way you can’t live your dad’s dream”).

But the 97’s also show themselves to be much more at ease with expressing subtler sentiments. In their late-90’s heyday, it sometimes seemed a struggle for them to balance their gift for gorgeous melody with their gravitation toward restless energy; too often the surging intensity steamrolled the precious beauty of their material.

On Drag It Up, it doesn’t appear to have bothered them that at least half the record is subdued in tone and tempo. If the overall result isn’t quite as rawk, well, the sound suits the songs, and that makes all the difference.

Some of this shift may be partly attributable to frontman Rhett Miller’s recent stab at a solo career. Though his 2002 disc The Instigator wasn’t any kind of commercial breakthrough, it did underline his talent as a pop tunesmith, and that facet of his artistry seems to have been encouraged here. “Moonlight,” “Blinding Sheets of Rain,” and “Adelaide” are prime examples; they’re instantly catchy numbers that don’t even try to rock, because they don’t need to. Instead, the band lends just the right light touch behind Miller’s sweetly engaging croon, letting the tune carry the day.

In a somewhat different vein is “Valium Waltz,” which finds the 97’s turning ever so slightly in a psychedelic direction. On the one hand, it’s a simple three-quarter-time ballad about “the daughter of the mayor of Marble Falls,” but rather than play it straight, they’ve twisted the tone toward the tripped-out drag of the substance in the song’s title. This is new territory for the 97’s, and suggests they’re interested not just in revisiting their past, but in reinventing their future.

That becomes even clearer on the following track, “In the Satellite Rides a Star.” Together, the two songs anchor the middle of the record with a mesmerizing spell that brings to mind the melancholy mood-music of Mark Kozelek or Mojave 3 for more than the trusty twang upon which the Old 97’s built their name.

One suspects “In the Satellite Rides a Star” was initially written for the group’s previous album, since that album was titled Satellite Rides. It might not have fit quite right on that disc, which Bethea’s band bio more or less accurately describes as “a bouncy rock and roll record.” But the song is well-suited to the more eclectic and personal persuasion of Drag It Up.

What’s really remarkable about “In the Satellite Rides a Star,” though, is that the lead vocal is delivered not by Miller buy by bassist Murry Hammond. This isn’t particularly unusual at first blush, as Hammond has typically taken a lead turn or two on teach of the group’s albums; he also steps out front here on “Smokers,” a rhythmically intriguing if ultimately forgettable number toward the front of the disc.

But “In the Satellite Rides a Star” is different, because it is, without question, the most affecting and arresting vocal performance on the album. The lyric is elusive, impressionistic: “I got your number, I know who you are / You’re a satellite on the world,” Hammond sings, hinting in the line and others what he’s talking about but never quite coming right out and saying it.

No matter, the spirit of the song is clear when he and Miller sing together in the simple straightforward chorus: “And I feel it slowing down.” We don’t need to understand anymore, we feel it, just as they do.

And y’all remember the Old 97’s free show in NYC’s Rockefeller park last week? Well on account of rain it was moved indoors – moved indoors to the gymnasium of lower Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School. Talk about a talent show! Here’s a review that appeared on AOL’s Digital City: (Who wrote it? I don’t know! If you know, let me know. Now 😉

Thursday, July 15, 2004

6:37:56 PM EDT

What’s So Good About a Good Time?

Sometimes you love a band for many years and then they screw it up for you. They could do this by recording solo projects, turning left when they shoulda turned right, going commercial, playing infrequent tours. Conversely, you can let them down. You can stop playing their songs when you come home from work in a semi-lucid state, craving real emotion and things made by hand instead of machine. You foresake your heroes for the new Franz Ferdinand, who used to be the new Yeah Yeah Yeahs or the new White Stripes or the new Shins. You worry that maybe songs about burning nightclubs and serial ladykillers are good at 26 but maybe now it’s time to listen to Norah Jones or Aimee Mann (No).

I have done all of these things to my dear Old 97’s, and they have done the same to me. But after last night, it’s all good. After a looming thunderstorm — we should know, after all, that “insurgent country” in NYC is always greeted by Mother Nature’s fury — caused their free show to be moved from Rockefeller Park to Stuyvesant High School’s auditorium, no one was sure just how grand a comeback it would be. Rhett, Murry, Ken and Phil sauntered out, peering out from scalding hot stage lights at a packed house. Everyone was sitting, reluctant and regressing into student mode by sheer virtue of being seated in a folding chair and lectured by the event organizer, who told us, “This area in front of the stage is not a mosh pit.” The crowd snickered.

The band plowed into ‘Rollerskate Skinny,’ then delved further back into its wild-eyed twang-punk days (‘Time Bomb,’ ‘Four Leaf Clover,’ ‘Doreen,’ ‘Victoria,’ ‘Barrier Reef,’ ‘If My Heart Was a Car’), interspersing thoughtful tracks from its forthcoming album, ‘Drag It Up.’ The guitarist, Ken, remarked that this whole thing was sort of unsettling, that it was like his worst nightmare in high school come true to play on a school stage in front of a crowd. “Yes, but this time you’re wearing pants,” Rhett shot back. By the end of an hour-plus set, everyone was dancing in the aisles, on the orchestra pit, in the rows. The band collectively broke about 5 strings trying to please us, then came back for an encore. And when I came outside into the oddly chilly Tribeca night, I felt raw again. Thanks, guys.

Your Old 97’s reading this week also includes this feature from the Houston Chronicle, and this from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Finally, for those of you who want extra credit, here’s some deeper reading. First up is Rhett on fatherhood, and then a long and thoughtful interview with Murry Hammond on faith, forgiveness, and Christianity. More soon!