Wreck Your Life
The Old 97's
The Chicago-based Bloodshot label has a name for their brand of country music: "Insurgent," they call it, which is another way of hinting "outlaw" without the baggage applied to that term. It's also a polite, roundabout way of saying that Bloodshot's stable of artists--from the Waco Brothers to the Old 97's to Chicago's Moonshine Willy--are country by way of rock and roll, fetishists who adore the music's tradition but come to the honky-tonk through the back door when the regulars have all gone home.
Their tradition is less George Jones and Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell than Uncle Tupelo and the Mekons and the Jayhawks, so far removed from context that the music and musicians are free to redefine "country" as anything with a twang and a tear. To listen to the Old 97's or even the Waco Brothers (fronted by Mekons frontman Jon Langford, who briefly appears on Wreck Your Life) is to hear a brand of music that depends upon sincerity rather than attitude, respect rather than irreverence.
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A song like the Old 97's' "W.I.F.E." (originally released as a B-side, re-recorded here) sounds instantly dated, but it's supposed to; it's meant to recall another era, meant to creak with authenticity and reek of aged alcohol. But Hank Williams drank his booze straight from a broken bottle, and Rhett Miller likes to sip his whiskey mixed with a Slurpee, as he sings on "Bel Air."
When the band's brand of country stands on its own two boots, it does so because the boys crawl out on a limb that protrudes far from the country-music family tree. It is also because they distance themselves from the irony and boozy sarcasm of tradition; a song like "Dressing Room Walls" rocks, careens, packs a solid punch and never once sounds derivative. Miller, Murry Hammond, Ken Bethea and Philip Peeples have, in fact, evolved into a band with a definable sound that's grown less cutesy and more substantiative over time.
If it still bears Miller's trademark poor-poor-broken-hearted-me themes, which are hard to swallow when sung by a man who's prettier than most women, and if the hillbilly shtick is wearing after a while (nobody 'round these parts pronounces it "Yer-o-peen-un"), still their music has opened up to hold a wider array of sounds. It may try hard to evoke the sound of old country AM radio, but it also harks back to the folksy pop of the Everly Brothers and the rootsy rock of Buddy Holly. "Old Familiar Steam," the kind of trad train song Hammond dearly loves, is eerie in its evocation of that nostalgic sound; it almost sounds as if it had been recorded in a museum, an exhibit plucked from the walls and forever encased in digital glory.