Alive and Wired – Old 97s
New West Records 6080
Ever heard that clichhrase, “they do [such and such] like it’s going out of style?” The Old 97s are one band that brings the saying to mind. Between about 1966 and 1996, it seemed like one could take a quartet of white guys with guitars and hooks for granted. These days, though, a reviewer can’t celebrate their mastery without considering the question of how many of these sorts of folks the industry can support nowadays.
The easiest way to ignore these concerns is to get onstage, so it’s a fine time for the Old 97s to drop a double live disc on us. After more than a decade on the scene, this band has its chemistry down. Murry Hammond contributes rural changes of pace, Ken Bethea brings lead guitar muscle and token lead vocals and Philip Peeples is the capable, unshowy drummer. The frontman, though, is Rhett Miller, and he’s got the knack for being happy enough not to be a drag and unlucky enough not to make anyone jealous. Plus, as a chess club veteran in a band named for a Johnny Cash song, he knows his way around both smart lyrics and catchy choruses.
For better or worse, this is a no-frills live album. No new songs, no long solos, not much stage patter, just two hours and 30 concise songs, at least a third of which cycled through my head at one time or another this weekend even though I never heard these guys before last Monday. Except for Miller’s solo shot, all chapters of the story are represented, from Bloodshot beginnings to the pop attempts of their Elektra years to their current commitment to a low budget. Compared to the spit’n’polish of Fight Songs or Satellite Rides, the vocals here are gruffer, the beats more slovenly and the guitar breaks less hookcentric, but if those trappings make “King Of All The World” or “Oppenheimer” blend into the bar band woodwork a bit much, they pump new life into the numbers from last year’s back-to-the-indies Drag It Up
What’s next for the Old 97’s? For now, best to put aside those questions and let the guitars do their work. May this band’s van hold up for many more miles.