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 Songs with 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.
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.
SH: My sense has been that with everything that's happened over the past year--wives and babies and major-label deals--the band had to take a hard stare at themselves and say, "OK, Rhett's gonna do his pop thing. That's his solo career. When we make the next Old 97's album, we're going to return to the old sound, which is what the fans want."
RW: Ultimately, there is nothing wrong with this record. It is a fine record by a good band. It just happens that as I got older, I gravitated toward the stuff that was poppy, more lush and intimate. I like grown-up pop, which is what I thought Rhett was going to do from here on out.
SH: And that may be what he does with his solo career.
RW: Great. I will buy that album and listen to it with relish.
SH: And mustard?
RW: Yeah, I was about to say that.
Track 8: "In the Satellite Rides a Star"
ZC: One thing this record shows is how much better Murry [Hammond] has gotten as a writer over the years. It used to be that Murry had "that one song" on the album. Now his writing is much more varied.
SH: I really like "In the Satellite Rides a Star." It's lovely. Although I'm puzzled that it's on this album, considering it gives the name to the previous album.
RW: It is a lovely song.
ZC: Between this and "Valium Waltz," it makes me wish that Ranchero Brothers album had come out.
Track 7: "Valium Waltz"
SH: I know the band considers this to be one of their best songs ever, but I don't find it that special.
RW: You can never trust a band to judge the artistic merits of their own songs. Otherwise, Bob Dylan wouldn't have ever released all those official bootlegs.
ZC: When it was written, I think it was really different from most Old 97's songs.
RW: I actually like this song a lot. But I think it could have been bigger, better, bolder.
SH: I'd certainly like it to be a little bolder.
RW: It's a slap that could have been a punch. But I think that about a lot of these songs. This is a problem that every music critic or every music fan faces when a band fails to meet your expectations. I can't listen to this record without thinking what could have been, what should have been, which isn't fair. It's clearly what the band wanted to do. By no means is it a failure. It's a very serviceable record. But I had no visceral reaction to it, unlike almost everything they've ever done. "Barrier Reef" is one of the great unheralded pop songs of the '90s. The Instigator will go down as a greatly underappreciated solo debut. But this is just a record by a band that sounds just like a band.
ZC: The only real criticism I have is that there's a lack of cohesion. It's not an album that they needed to put out. Maybe it's a little slapdash because they have families, but also, because they have families they need to put out a record that's a little slapdash.
RW: It's a collection of outtakes, of never-before-recordeds. Like all albums of that ilk, you can't judge it as a serious piece of work because it has no cohesion. It's just a record of old songs--some of which are really good and some of which are really not, and when you take it as a whole, it averages out as average.
SH: I agree with some of that, but I happen to like it.
ZC: Yeah, I think it's above average. This is what I prefer from them. They're a band that needed to take a step back.
SH: Because maybe they had lost themselves a little.
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RW: I like it when bands lose themselves, because that means that sooner or later they have to find themselves.
SH: Maybe they have.
ZC: Maybe this album is unnecessary, but I dig it. It's like a friend from college I haven't seen in a while. My life would have been fine if I hadn't seen him again, but I did, and we have a great time. So, hey. That kicks ass.
RW: Look, I just hated everyone I went to college with. For you, that's a beautiful, apt metaphor. For me, it's a bad memory.