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At this point in The Old 97's career, a collection like Early Tracks isn't really necessary. Early Tracks is a bit of music-industry sleight of hand, a trick designed to divert the attention of their fans until a new album is ready. But The Old 97's don't need to resort to such chicanery: Since the band formed in 1993, it has put out four albums and a handful of singles, never letting too much time pass between new releases. The band has already begun pre-production on a follow-up to last year's Fight Songs, which should be in stores before the end of the year. Not only that, but since Fight Songs was released in the middle of last year, the 97's have issued one new song, "The Villain" (a B-side to the "Nineteen" single), and the group's split EP with Funland was released on CD for the first time. The point is, there isn't--and never has been--a shortage of Old 97's product on the shelves. The gaps are all stopped.
Of course, Early Tracks--which consists of four songs from two singles the band released on Bloodshot Records, as well as four outtakes from the sessions for 1995's Wreck Your Life--feels new enough that most 97's acolytes won't mind much, especially the ones who recently discovered the band. After all, the group that recorded these songs is practically a different band than the one that showed up on every late-night talk show around in the last year. That band is more rock than country, and more pop than anything else, more like Miller and Hammond's early outfit Sleepy Heroes than the bands you'd find in the pages of No Depression. Which, if you really think about it, is where Miller and Hammond should have landed in the first place, not trying to be something they weren't.
The version of The Old 97's that shows up on Early Tracks, however, has a singer who sounds as if he's belting his way through each song with a piece of hay between his teeth, singing lines such as "The first two make it so's that I see red / The third one makes it so's that I can't see." Miller was using someone else's voice then, with a twang as sharp as a rusty guitar string. He was singing different songs too--"train songs," they used to be called, songs like "Por Favor" and "Eyes for You" that chug-chugged along to Philip Peeples' locomotive beat and Ken Bethea's steam-whistle guitar leads. And if nothing else, Early Tracks is a must-have for any 97's fan for its inclusion of "Ray Charles," an old gem the band rarely plays anymore and has never recorded again. "Ray Charles" is the band at its best, a combination of pickin'-and-grinnin' country and prickly pop. Maybe Miller will remember that the next time he writes a song like "Nineteen."