by Al Kaufman
The word used to desccribe the Old 97’s last release, 2004’s Drag It Up, was "mature." That’s a nice way of saying that the band sounded a bit old and tired. At that point, most of the Texans in the band had moved to California and had just become dads, or were on the verge of fatherhood. Lead singer and songwriter Rhett Miller seemed more interested in his fledging solo career and model wife than the band. Most thought Drag It Up would be the band’s rather limp swan song.
But damned if the news of the band’s demise was not just a wee bit premature. The boys left the sunny confines of California and returned to the dusty heat of Dallas to record the new CD. While Blame It On Gravity is not a return to the band’s cowpunk sound, it snaps and sizzles with life, and is their best work since their Electra debut, Too Far Too Care. Ken Bertha’s guitar is all over this CD (and let’s not neglect his fine mellotron playing on "She Loves the Sunset"). He gallops through the opening track, "The Fool," and never looks back. While poster child Miller, who is clearly one of the best pop songwriter’s of his generation, and Murry Hammond, whose songs ensure the band stays close to its old country roots, get most of the glory, Bertha’s guitar is the glue that holds this CD together.
Practically every track on here is instantly memorable. Yes, the twang is almost gone, but Miller seems to have been listening to a lot of classic Kinks while penning the songs for Blame It On Gravity. Strong melodies and hooks surround clever lyrics. You will start singing the song in your head as soon as it ends. That is, until the next, even better, song begins.
The CD closes with "The One," about a very talented band (whose members happen to have the same names as the performers) that moves to California in hopes of making it big. When that never comes to fruition, they rob banks. "I like you California, although I feel obliged to warn you/We’re gonna rob you blind," sings Miller. It’s nice to see you got your Texas attitude back, Rhett. Hope it sticks around for a while.
The Old 97’s (with Sleepercar) play Variety Playhouse on Tuesday, July 22, 8:30 pm. $20.