“And I feel it slowing / And I feel it slowing
down,” bassist Murry Hammond plaintively sings halfway
through the Old 97’s latest release, Drag It Up.
It’s the record’s most telling line, both in terms of
the band’s sound and their rock’n’roll lifestyle.
Hard-driving country rock has given way to quiet and restrained
balladry, and beer-swilling and barroom brawling have become
domesticity and fatherhood.
At their peak, the Old 97’s defined the alt-country genre
with up-tempo, guitar-heavy country rhythms, catchy pop hooks and
just the right amount of emo sensibility on 1999’s Fight
Songs and 2001’s Satellite Rides. Ken
Bethea’s guitar churned and seared beneath Rhett
Miller’s spirited vocals and clever homespun tales of the
heartbroken and hopelessly romantic ambling down Texas highways and
drinking in dingy bars.
On Drag It Up, the group’s sixth album and first
for New West Records, the emphasis no longer lies in driving
guitars and unbridled energy, but more on melody and atmosphere.
Bethea’s twangy guitar lines meander lazily behind
Miller’s melodies, which, though still catchy and laden with
hooks, are delivered with breathy vocals, making Drag It Up
the 97’s tamest record to date.
The band’s new slower approach on Drag It Up makes
for some especially pretty melodies, such as the mournful “No
Mother,” an appropriately sentimental tribute to a friend who
was killed by a drunk driver last year, and the simple heartbreak
tale “Adelaide.” Others, however, like gloomy lounge
song “Smokers” and the lugubrious “Blinding
Sheets of Rain,” fall flat. On many of the slower numbers,
Miller’s usually witty, on-the-ball lyrics lack the poetic
punch of some of the 97’s classics.
Only a few times do the old Old 97’s show through, like on
the bouncy “The New Kid” and the unabashedly schmaltzy
“Friends Forever,” which features witticisms
reminiscent of the bygone era: “I was a debater / Was not a
stoner nor an inline skater / Was not a player nor a player hater /
I was just a bookworm on a respirator.”
The new Old 97’s direction isn’t necessarily a bad
one, but they seem to have hung up their spurs and put their
trailblazing days behind them. Rhett Miller’s knack for
creating catchy melodies still exists, but the band’s
youthful exuberance and carefree abandon are, for the most part,
missing. They sound less like a group of rowdy Texas punks and more
like, well, a group of first-time fathers.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars.