Old 97s – Blame It On Gravity
Back in the day, when “alt country” was still an indefinable thing, something you couldn’t really nail down specifically but you always knew it when you heard it, before the corporate record music people got together and dubbed it and anything remotely like it “Americana,” The Old 97s were in the vanguard of that insurgent sub-genre.
And like just about every other band that got tagged as “alt country” back then, they’ve spent the last decade or so trying to shed themselves of the label and become a regular old pop band.
In their early shows and records (Hitchhike To Rhome, Wreck Your Life), they managed to combine the frenetic energy of Killbilly (the legendary Texas bluegrass ensemble that Rhett Miller and Murry Hammond played in just before its demise) with sharp lyrics, insanely catchy melodies and a general sense of balls out fun. And they did it all with a nod and a wink to old-timey country music.
They were, in essence, a punk country band.
Their later output has had moments of real inspiration but it’s been over ten years since they put out anything as satisfying on the whole as Wreck or it’s follow up, 1997’s Too Far to Care.
Until now, that is. Blame It On Gravity, their newest, is a genuine return to form for fans of the old Old 97s.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t just a repackaging of their earlier sound, it’s more of a refining. Rhett and Murray have grown as songwriters and it definitely shows. Where Rhett used to bob his head and wail about lovesick obsessions, insecurities and revenge fantasies over a charging acoustic rhythm while Murry played an acoustic bass guitar and injected some old fashion sin and redemption country themes through an aw-shucks grin; Gravity displays some impressive lyric subtlety. That’s evident on tracks like Rhett’s “She Loves The Sunset,” "Here’s To The Halcyon" and especially Murry’s ballad, “Color of A Lonely Heart Is Blue,” the album’s prettiest song.
One real happy surprise on this disc is the prominent featuring of guitarist Ken Bethea. He rocks and grinds and power strums and cha-chas on just about every track like he did on the best songs from TFTC. On Rhett’s “I Will Remain” he even tosses off some tasty soul riffs.
The High point of the record is the country blues stomp, “Early Morning.” It’s hands down the rockinest thing they’ve done since “Four Leaf Clover.” Just like he did on that one, Bethea throws down some Billy Zoom style crunch, complete with feedback laden twang and drummer Phillip Peeples pounds out a relentless driving beat. It’s great stuff.
How well it holds up remains to be seen but I’d be willing to step out on a shaky limb and say it might just be their best record yet. Their last studio release, Drag It Up, fell on these ears much more easily than its two predecessors, Fight Songs and Satellite Rides. Those two sounded a lot like the band softening up and Drag had a bit more of the old edge. Now, with Blame It On Gravity, it sounds like The Old 97s have not only moved back into the house that used to be but also tastefully updated the furniture.
I, for one, couldn’t be happier to hear it.