Although I hadn’t even entered grade school at the time the Old 97s were releasing what is widely considered to be their greatest music in the 90’s, since I became aware of the band in 2008, I’ve visited and revisited their catalog and followed their career through, as of yesterday, three records (Blame it on Gravity, The Grand Theatre: Volume One and now The Grand Theatre: Volume Two). So, it was with great excitement that I rushed to the store yesterday to pick up my copy of the new album. It hasn’t quit playing in the iTunes library since.
Regardless of what reviews have said about the band not being able to revitalize their early “cowpunk” energy (see the Paste review), what strikes me about each new release, TGT: Volume Two included, is the variety of material and fresh perspective each manages to bring. There’s a very present effort on the part of the band to experiment with new tones, lyric explorations and even genres, as on bassist Murry Hammond’s sea-chanty themed, “White Port.”
Critics have praised Miller’s sharp songwriting on opening track “Brown Haired Daughter” and track two, “I’m a Trainwreck,” pairs the psychological breakdown that characterizes much of Miller’s music with some catchy riffs from guitarist Ken Bethea thrown in in classic 97s form, however, it is track five, “No Simple Machine,” that stood out as a pillar of genius during my first listen.
The lyrics, telling the story of the girl who went through an emotionally abusive relationship before ending up with the narrator, are sung in what I’ve described before as Miller’s trademark snarl. More than a hint of jealousy can be detected on the last chorus, as Miller sings, “He may have had you/but he never had you/you are no simple machine.”
Again, there’s the genius in Miller’s songwriting. People can identify with the feeling of stepping into a new relationship, jealous of the partner who came before. And whether it’s right or wrong, you always want to paint a negative picture of that person. Miller’s songwriting can be contemplative in a happy way, but he knows better than many how to connect with the things we’d rather not talk about (for instance, the classic man murders cheating wife tune, “Old Brown Shoe,” from Wreck Your Life, sung with all the gory and sordid details).
“Ivy” is another favorite from TGT: Volume Two, akin to regular favorites from the 90’s such as “Victoria” and while critics have agreed and disagreed on the more experimental, “The Actor,” it has its place on the album and in the 97s’ catalogue. It’s an interesting character study in the onstage/offstage life of a washed-up stage actor that really breaks uncharted lyric ground for Miller. It’s more of an academic sketch than his characteristic sharp poetry, but it’s a new direction and you simply can’t fault a musician for trying something new to excite the creative juices every once in awhile.
Overall, it’d be off the mark to say that TGT: Volume Two is second rate compared to Volume One, as Paste said in its review. They’re two entirely different albums, but Volume Two has shining points. Right out of the gate, I was impressed by Bethea’s guitar work. In an interview, I once heard Bethea say he tries to find a new effect pedal to use on each new album. I’d say he’s stuck to the practice, and for a guitarist, his experiments are refreshing and keep each new album as engaging as the last.
I’ll forever thank my high school friend Reid Sheldahl for introducing me to the Old 97s my junior year of high school and to draw a strange parallel, a new album from Rhett and the guys reminds me of my friendship with him. We don’t meet up often, but every time we do, he has a few new stories and some old ones…but they’re always told a little differently the second time around.
For a taste of TGT: Volume Two, here’s a video of “No Simple Machine,” shot from the crowd at a show in April by Marie Popichak, an Old 97s superfan and blogger. Check her out on Twitter at @maripops.