We assumed it wasn’t going to happen. The Old ’97s’ last album for Elektra, Satellite Rides, was far from a hit. The following year, frontman Rhett Miller recorded his first solo album, The Instigator, its cover adorned by his pretty alt-country poster boy countenance and its content much more straightforward and trite than the country twang of his band’s stellar albums Too Far to Care and Fight Songs. In the meantime, bandmate Murry Hammond was getting married on cable television and it looked as if the end was approaching. No new shows. No new albums. Just Miller’s shot at solo success, and a mediocre one at that.
Then we all stopped paying attention. A new Old ’97s album just didn’t seem likely. So, of course, the announcement of the release of their sixth album, Drag It Up, caught us all off guard. Not only are the Old ’97s back, but they’ve actually returned to the Replacements-meets-Cash country rock sound that earned them legions of non-depressives in the nineties. The polished pop sound of Satellite Rides and The Instigator showed no indication that the band was even interested in dusting off the lap steels, but in the last three years, something must have re-ignited the spark that set the band’s Texas tunes ablaze back in their heyday.
As trite an expression as this really is, Drag It Up truly is a return to form for these Lone Stars. The familiar, punk-influenced cowboy gallop of “Won’t Be Home” opens the album, sounding like an older cousin to their 1997 fan favorite, “Time Bomb.” The next song, “Moonlight,” boasts some pretty chorus melodies, and the kind of sad and lonesome lyrics that will forever be a part of the culture of country music. “Borrowed Bride” features some sprightly saloon piano, similar to that of Fight Songs‘ “Busted Afternoon.” And “Smokers,” the first appearance of lead vocals by Hammond, is a distorted, surf-influenced rocker that encompasses all of the greatness that stems from the band’s talent. Just four songs in, Drag It Up shows potential of being one of their best.
Unfortunately, Drag hits a snag on the Ken Bethea-sung “Coahuila,” which delivers some disappointing lyrics over an otherwise peppy Southwestern Tex-Mex melody. But it’s a minor misstep on an otherwise impressive collection that boasts some of the band’s best songs, including the rocking “The New Kid” and “Friends Forever,” the quirky “Bloomington” and the tender album closer “No Mother.”
The Old ’97s don’t sound as bitter as they did on Too Far to Care or as heartbroken as they did on Fight Songs, but rather more comfortable and closer as friends and bandmates. Drag It Up is the work of not only a rock band, but a family of musicians that have been together for ten years and have, undoubtedly, seen it all. But with this album, it’s apparent that having a good time was their first priority, which, lucky for us, results in great music.
Whiskeytown – Strangers Almanac
Robbie Fulks – Let’s Kill Saturday Night
Old ’97s – Fight Songs
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.