Golden Oldies

With their latest album, the Old 97's return to form. Or do they? A critical discussion.

Drag It Up is the Old 97's sixth album and their first since 2001's Satellite Rides. Since that album, the band has been dropped from its major label, Elektra, and for a while, its future was rumored to be in jeopardy while front man Rhett Miller started a family in upstate New York and released a solo album, The Instigator. Still together and now on New West Records, the Old 97's returned to an earlier sound with Drag It Up, which comes out Tuesday, replacing the poppy confections that had marked their work since 1999's Fight Songswith twangy rockers and spacey, introspective ballads. We gathered three generations of Dallas Observer music critics to discuss the merits of Drag It Up, using songs on the album as starting points.

Track 1: "Won't Be Home"

Sarah Hepola: To me, this is quintessential Old 97's, the song I want playing when I'm driving down the highway with the windows down.

"Hey, Rhett, remember that time you put out that record in high school and you kinda looked like a girl? That was pretty funny."
"Hey, Rhett, remember that time you put out that record in high school and you kinda looked like a girl? That was pretty funny."

Zac Crain: It's a good song to start the album, but it's a little paint-by-numbers.

Robert Wilonsky: It's like an Old 97's tribute song played by an Old 97's cover band.

SH: What does that mean?

RW: [Joking] You figure it out.

SH: Robert, do you want to talk about why you don't like the album?

RW: It's not that I don't like the album. It's that I have a lot of Old 97's albums that are better than this one. In fact, every Old 97's record is better than this one.

ZC: I don't think that's necessarily true. I didn't like Satellite Rides.

RW: I like Satellite Rides much better.

SH: Probably what you think of this album depends on where you fall as a fan. My favorite Old 97's album has always been Too Far to Care, which this sounds more like.

RW: I find this album completely underwhelming. It feels like a giant step backward. There's a couple of exceptional songs on it. "The New Kid" is one of the best songs Rhett's ever done.

Track 9: "The New Kid"

SH: I love this song, and unlike the others, it actually sounds like a new song. Vocally, Rhett sounds terrific.

RW: And musically, it's the most interesting song on the record.

ZC: Doesn't it sound like Rhett's talking about his not-so-hot solo career? The Instigator was a good album, but it came out at the wrong time for him. I think this song is about the imperfect timing of the business and how what some of these other guys have should be his. It's very cynical. Like, "I was Pete Yorn before Pete Yorn got successful." ["The New Kid he's got money/The money I deserve."]

RW: I think you're right. I'm reading through the lyrics right now.

ZC: In so many of Rhett's other songs, he's hiding behind this character--

SH: The swaggering drunk.

RW: The swaggering sensitive drunk.

ZC: This is more adult. He's stripped away a few layers. It's a guy who has a wife, a family--

RW: --who lost a major-label deal. Lyrically, it's the only song that engaged me.

SH: Well, what did you think of "Friends Forever"? That song is lyrically engaging.

Track 12: "Friends Forever"

ZC: I didn't think I was going to like this song, because it's the name of the song Zack sings on Saved by the Bell.

SH: It's an unfortunate title. It's also a song by Michael W. Smith that's played on the last day of Christian camps.

ZC: But it's clever. It has a lot of wordplay. It's a song that got better as I listened to it. It sounds like the Old 97's I liked.

RW: It's like something Rhett wrote in the St. Mark's yearbook and wrote music around.

SH: Whatever. Although that brings up one problem with this album--there are a lot of old songs written several years ago.

ZC: There are back-to-back Ranchero Brothers songs, "Valium Waltz" and "In the Satellite Rides a Star." There's a song by Ken [Bethea, "Coahuila"] that was clearly meant for his other band Scrap Hotel. It almost seems like they wanted to make another record but Rhett didn't have enough time. It's not irrelevant, but it's maybe unnecessary.

SH: It's a fan's album.

ZC: Definitely. And they're a band that succeeds based on their fans.

RW: I remember seeing them open up for Wilco at Sons of Hermann Hall, and they were great. But they were doing this kind of stuff. In the intervening years, Wilco has become a band who is this experimental, remarkable, avant-garde band, and Old 97's progressed in their own way--they became poppier. Between Fight Songs and The Instigator, I expected more.

ZC: I don't know if that was the right move for them.

RW: But it was more honest. Rhett's a pop guy.

ZC: The greatness of the band was that Rhett had this pop sensibility that had to be subverted, so you had these great twangy pop songs that weren't necessarily rock and roll. That's what worked for them, and I think it's what works about this. I don't think Satellite Rides worked as well. Philip [Peeples] had to be a different kind of drummer. Ken had to be a different kind of guitar player.

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