The Old 97's Move Forward, While Looking Back
The first word on the new Old 97's disc? "And."
Fitting. The disc, as expected, is a continuation of the band's The Grand Theatre series, the second and last planned volume from the batch of songs the band began working on in April 2010 at Sons of Hermann Hall, back when they hoped to release a double album instead of two volumes. The first, released last October, was something of a smash, earning the band the biggest critical raves and touring audiences of their career. Rightfully so: The Grand Theatre, Vol. One was the best thing the band had released since the '90s.
Lucky for them the second installment, due out July 5, is just as good.
Vol. Two is yet another classic 97's romp, filled with snarling vocals and an overall bitchy 'tude. Like the first in the series, it's also a little experimental—by 97's standards, at least. Whereas past albums such as 2008's Blame It On Gravity fell flat as the band tinkered with their proven, successful formula and aimed for a more pop aesthetic, the band's Grand Theatre installments have been alt-country affairs through and through, with just a handful of welcome dalliances. This time around, that experimentation comes largely in the form of "White Port," a track penned by bassist and co-vocalist Murry Hammond that sounds downright Flogging Molly-ish.
Aside from that, it's pretty much chugging alt-country offered up at various paces. That was all intentional, of course, because that's the band's bread and butter. And, over a recent brunch at AllGood Cafe in Deep Ellum, the two remaining Dallas-dwelling members of the cherished Dallas-bred band admitted as much, while also acknowledging the fact that their band's main songwriters have tendencies to draw the band away from that sound.
"The two directions that our band can go because of the two principal songwriters are [frontman] Rhett [Miller] being too poppy and artsy-fartsy, and Murry being too bluegrass-y and folksy," says guitarist Ken Bethea.
Drummer Philip Peeples nods along: "But it's from the heart," he adds. "They both bring it from the heart."
Bethea nods back: "At the same time, though, I'm not into really artsy-fartsy pop," he says. "Nor am I really into the hillbilly stuff."
It's an interesting string of conversation from this pair: Despite the fact that they're mostly known as the quietest members of the four-piece, they might be the two members most responsible for the band's distinctive style. Peeples' drums and Bethea's guitars are in many ways at the core of what makes the band's music so recognizable. Sure, there's Miller's hyper-literate lyricism. And, yeah, there's Hammond's obsession with history. But it's Peeples' train beats and Bethea's muscular surf-rock guitar parts that really drive the band's sound. They always have been—something that Miller and Hammond, the band's usual spokesmen, have long acknowledged. It makes sense, then, that the pair considers it their job in the studio to keep the band's sound true.
"The band filter weeds out all that stuff," Peeples says with something of a smirk.
"You have to kind of argue against it without hurting their feelings or whatever," Bethea adds.
Walking that line can be tricky. Take Hammond's "White Port" for example.
"There's yodeling and stuff in it," Bethea says, not entirely amused. "That song goes back to Blame it on Gravity, maybe before. And Murry really explained what he wanted to do with it. There was a treatment he kept hearing in his head."
"So we put a beat to it, exactly how he'd explained it, and he said it made it sound too lighthearted and fun," explains Peeples. "And I'm like, 'Yeah, exactly!' That's the Old 97's formula—to sing about death and whatever, but play it in a happy way. And he was real personal about it. He didn't like the way our treatment worked out. So he held onto that for a while. But that's what happens to songs with us. They come back."
Point is, they often come back better.
Surprising as it may be to hear the band break out into an Irish-accented shout-along as they do at the start of "White Port," the song stands as a shining success, a drinking song that ended up as contemplative as it is lighthearted.
That's hardly the only example of this kind of song progress. Perhaps a better study is "Ivy," the song that immediately follows "White Port" on the album's track listing. Bethea describes it as a "Day One Old 97's song, from back before Philip even joined the band," which traces its origins to circa 1993. A former set list staple—and oftentimes a set-closer in the days before "Timebomb" and "Four Leaf Clover"—the band never recorded the song, in part, Bethea says, because Ivy is a real girl, and Ivy is her real name and, fun fact, Ivy is an ex-girlfriend of Miller's. According to Peeples and Bethea, Miller was always too gun-shy to record it—something that always irked Bethea, who says he'd always loved the song, and always hoped the band would come back around to it.
So, this time around, as the band was looking for tracks to add to the eight or so songs they were holding over from the first volume, he forced the issue. Kind of.
"I set up a trap for him to walk into," Bethea says, with a laugh. "We were going over other songs to consider for the second volume, and I pitched it to Murry. I said to him, 'There's got to be a song that we've got that's just out there.' I'm just setting him up. And he goes, 'Ivy!' And I go, 'Great idea!' So I call [producer] Salim [Nourallah], and he got on board. It's just got great lyrics—some of Rhett's best."
That story helps make sense of how The Grand Theatre, Vol. Two came together in the first place. Already pleased with the pool of songs they'd held over from the first volume, the band simply set out to beef up those songs and to ensure the songs around those tracks complemented them. In a sense, none of the songs are new—the band's been stewing on the Grand Theatre batch for well more than a year, and they've been messing with some of them even longer.
"A lot of bands will go back and listen to things and say, 'Well, this sucks. Let's start over,'" Peeples says. "We always try to work with what we've got."
Fast approaching two decades of existence, the band's "got" plenty. And, with their ninth studio full-length, they also have another highly enjoyable listen. They're aging not only gracefully, but well. Kind of like a white port.
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