August 09, 2004

Old 97s "Drag It Up"

It's been a few years coming, but the Old 97s have returned. Though they were presumedly lost in record contract hell--their Elektra deal went south not too long after they released their last record, the good sounding but seemingly soulless Satelllite Rides, and when Rhett Miller did the solo thing, it seemed as if the band had finally been put to rest. It wouldn't have been all that surprising; by the time they released Satellite Rides, the band had seemingly left their country/punkabilly ways behind, in favor of a more commercially viable (whatever that is) sound.

Luckily for us, getting dropped has proven to be the career-boost the 97's needed. Drag It Up, the band's sixth album, finds the band returning to the urban rockabilly style they made famous years ago. The mere promise that they've tapped into the youthful vim and vigor of Wreck Your Life should be enough incentive to reestablish the band's role in the world, but don't think that they're a bunch of guys 'getting back to their roots' just to appease their old fanbase, because Drag It Up has enough ear candy to satisfy the sonic sweet tooth of new listeners. Rare is it when a new album should be the starting place for an established act, but that's the beauty of Drag It Up: firmly rooted in the past, they make no attempt to be something they're not, and with an eye to the future, their music sounds quite fresh.

As for the band--well, it's like they never went away. They still have the twangy sound that made them famous, and it's really refreshing to hear that frantic, caffeinated guitar and drum combo again after the past few years of glossed-over records. And thank goodness they're still doing what they do best: singing about girls and heartbreak and life in general. Ladies cause confusion ("Blinding Sheets of Rain"), they weigh heavy on Rhett's mind ("Moonlight") and sometimes, just sometimes, they do him right ("Bloomington"). Clearly the most interesting song is the rather bitter "The New Kid," which seems like a commentary on love, but comes off as a rant about record labels and their star-making nature. Murray Hammond offers up a great tune "The Satellite Rides A Star," with lyrics that make you wonder if this is an outtake from their last record. Heck, even shy Ken Bethea steps out from behind the guitar to sing a song, the sad but funny "Coahuila." Ken Bethea is the Joe Walsh? Never thought of it before.

Drag It Up is a welcome return from an old friend. It's good to have them back, actually; they've never been anything less than a really fun group, and it's good to know that they recovered their vitality from Elektra. For a band whose music offers up no surprises, the Old 97's return to form is the greatest surprise of all. Welcome back, fellows!

--Joseph Kyle

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