By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Wreck Your Life, the 1995 effort of the Old 97's, was a snapshot from a band stretching their original premise to the breaking point, an album that sounded almost like a parody--a problem that dogs many of the acts signed (as the Old 97's were then) to Chicago's alt-country Bloodshot Records. At times, Rhett Miller and the guys were so twangy, so full of cornpone misery, that they could've just as easily been devotees from northern Japan as northern Texas.
With their major-label debut, the boys re-acquire the rock attitude that led them to honky-tonkin' in the first place. They keep any new sophistication off of center stage, allowing it to seep in along the edges, giving their original country-rock premise a chance to cool down and contract to something manageable. The subjects are still the same: love's crosstown traffic jam, the poor-boy singer standing on both sides of the big city's gilded palace of sin, yearning to get inside and--once admitted--tired, disillusioned, and lost, wanting nothing so much as to go home.
Ken Bethea--whose contributions to the band's sound is often overlooked--has outgrown the need to prove himself in some trial-by-twang firestorm. His mixing of rock crunch and distortion moves the band in a direction that's choppier and truer sounding. Which is not to say that there's not country flavor aplenty--"West Texas Teardrops" features a rolling banjo line lurking just below the surface, supporting sharp backup vocals and an up-front rockabilly snare part--but the overall approach is a lot more rock, with strong country overtones.
None of which gets in the way of lyric complexity. The band's writing and wordplay continue to develop: The line that animates "Melt Show"--"sober up and let me down"--is a heartbroken missive from a narrator who knows what will happen when his beloved finally gets her shit together, and "Streets Where I'm From" manages to celebrate the lessons of life while at the same time bemoaning the cost. Later, on "Curtain Calls," Miller--compulsive romantic that he is--sees a smash-up, but can't do a thing to stop it. Through it all, Miller--who seems, like the rest of the band, to be pushing himself harder than ever before--comes off as smarter than he is tough, able to cop to desperate, loser-like behavior like calling time and temperature just to avoid feeling alone. "It's not funny like on TV/And it's not smart like it is in books," Miller sings, and that collision between expectation and reality--common to us all--is the key to the band's appeal. Now that the Old 97's have successfully broadened their sound, their audience will surely follow suit, and that's when things will get really interesting.