Monday, January 17, 2011

Old 97's: Blame It on Gravity (2008)

(New West)


This CD, the band's seventh, was released at the height of my Old 97's fandom, a few months after I became extremely enamored of them and they rapidly found their way onto my all-time favorites list. Conventional wisdom has it as a disappointment, but I loved it at the time and played it nonstop for several weeks. Then my life sort of got derailed all of a sudden and I put it away for about three years, only to take it out today expecting to hear -- now devoid of enough bias that I saw their subsequent Grand Theatre Volume One as lacking -- the blandness everyone else has reported. Surprisingly enough, I still dig the whole thing -- every track -- and I've been away so long it doesn't even necessarily feel married to its time anymore. It's like getting a new Old 97's album out of nowhere. Rhett Miller's lyrics ("Don't tell me the world is in trouble; do you want to dance with me?") are stronger than ever, the melodies tease and slide with hooky perfection, and the band only seems to be growing tighter. I can't help thinking it's largely because they're making no artificial attempt here to be "alt-country" or to reenact Too Far to Care.

Yeah, okay, this is "soft rock," continuing the ever more commercial (and yet, ever less popular) track the band had been taking since it shifted to a power pop atmosphere in the late '90s -- the songs are friendly, calm, mature, and you could even call them dad-rock without that necessarily being pejorative. The boys have grown up, though they still occasionally lose their shit enough and get fucked up for a borderline-stalker anthem like "I Will Remain," and maybe the comparatively uneventful nature of writing music for minor albums on a tiny label hurts, but this disc at least posits maturity as a less destructive force than, say, the Replacements' last two albums. It's not what the Old 97's are really about, but its eloquent charm makes it an extension of their former selves rather than a shadow. Plus, the gently ambitious impulses that manifested themselves in playful Drag It Up cuts like the surf-rock "Smokers" fall into more fully-realized songs here: the vague Greek textures and insistence of "Dance with Me," the surprising gospel-tinged "Here's to the Halcyon," and the oblique doo wop shuffle on "She Loves the Sunset." There is finally something to be said for a slight loss of machismo, miss it though you will.

His (and Murray Hammond's) continued progression in songwriting notwithstanding, Rhett Miller's singing is less compelling than usual here, as is instantly apparent when he croons "there is looove" on opener "The Fool," and his overly relaxed adult contemporary manner may have contributed to the reception of Blame It on Gravity by fans. The rough edges are mostly gone, perhaps a consequence of the watered-down feel of his solo work, but he still does wounded and quiet like a master ("No Baby I"), and Hammond one-ups him with the magnum opus "The Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue." Some of the more derivative moments are troubling; the band plagiarizes itself on "The One" (a clone of "The House That Used to Be" that redeems itself a bit by referencing the Sandals' "Theme from Endless Summer") and "Early Morning" (dead ringer for "Four Leaf Clover," a song they've already plundered more than once), and cops a Shins riff for "My Two Feet." But little of it matters when they pull themselves together for triumphant pop (with killer bass) like "Ride" or touhctsone country-rock like "The Easy Way," either of which could fit on earlier albums seamlessly.

Inevitably, Gravity is now recontextualized by Grand Theatre, but it's surprising how well its songs hold on when compared to the often desperate grappling for passion on the newer record. No one apparently wanted the complacency this album exhibits, but I'll take that honesty over a vain attempt to bottle up youth anytime. This band always has been and will likely always remain one of the strongest, and they've earned enough goodwill for the rest of their lives, but I would honestly prefer the middle-of-the-AM-road direction Gravity suggests to the cockamamie scheme for rejuvenation derived by Theatre. Perversely, hearing this again makes me a bit more optimistic about Theatre's second installment, due out later in 2011. As I said before, that record will likely determine how much attention I pay to new Old 97's material from now on. But I'll be permanently thankful for the soundtrack they gave my early summer of '08.

The Grand Theatre Volume One (2010)

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