Let's get this right out of the way from the jump: The new album from the Old 97's, The Grand Theatre, Volume One, is the best thing the band has done in years—since the '90s, even. When you consider that the band's been around for coming up on two decades at this point, that's really saying something.
Or is it?
Here's the thing about the 97's: Iconic as they may be around these parts—and, make no mistake, they are icons, thanks in large part to their proliferation of the alt-country sound, which remains as close to a sonic styling that this region can call its own as anything—they've kind of been skimming by on their reputation for much of the '00s. With the exception, maybe, of 2001's Satellite Rides, the first of the band's four full-lengths put out in the past decade, the band's sound seemed rather stale.
Lost was its sense of vitality, its sense of urgency and the band's sense of having something to prove. It's tough to say where the blame for this change lies—frontman Rhett Miller, when asked as much, points his fingers at every step along the way in the music industry model—but, fact is, this was a band that had lost its way. Intent that he and his bandmates—bassist Murry Hammond, guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples—were more than just an alt-country band, Miller's songwriting started trending more toward sappy balladry and pop-rock jaunts.
The results weren't necessarily terrible—a bad 97's song is still, at worst, a charming attempt—but they weren't great, either. They just sort of were. As a result, their catalog, beefed up as it may have been by the sheer number of songs (the band has released eight studio efforts now), had become somewhat watered down. Which is a shame: Few bands from this region have ever penned songs with more vitality than the 97's. One needn't be an expert to listen to "Timebomb," "Four Leaf Clover," "Barrier Reef," "Rollerskate Skinny," "Victoria," "Big Brown Eyes," "Question" or "Murder (or a Heart Attack)," among other songs in the band's catalog, and hear something special.
But the band's last effort, 2008's Blame It On Gravity, only hinted at that prowess. Instead, it showed a band uncertain of its own identity; with Miller's own solo career beginning to take off, the lines between his pop-heavy sound and the band's dirtier roots-influenced style blurred. Sure, it received a healthy dose of critical acclaim—mostly from critics praising the band's new pop direction—but, in live settings, it didn't take. The 97's aren't now, nor have they ever been, the tightest live performers—just another part of their charm, for better or worse—but these newest songs begged for crisp presentation. In turn, they fell flat on stage. And, whether or not the band wanted to admit as much on the record, each of the 97's knew it.
Which brings us to The Grand Theatre. From the onset, back in April, when the band began its recording process, it was to be their most ambitious effort to date. Miller brought to the table some 25 songs for consideration—and he and producer Salim Nourallah were so sold on that crop that they started floating around the idea of releasing the disc as a double album. They bought into the idea, too. Another idea that they bought into: acknowledging that the 97's are a band best consumed in a live setting. Before tracking a single note for the album in either the Dallas or Austin studios in which the band recorded this disc, they holed up for a week at Sons of Hermann Hall (where, last December, the band bid 2009 adieu with a four-night residency) and flushed out each of the song's arrangements and intricacies while sitting on that venue's stage, an imaginary audience laid out before them.
Though not actually recorded at Sons, nor released as a double disc (Miller blames publishing issues), those two factors proved distraction enough to keep the band from over-thinking its efforts. Mostly, Miller says, because they proved cumbersome tasks.
"It changed the conversation," he says. "[We didn't have] that interminable fucking conversation of 'Who are we? What is our place in music? What should we do next? How will they react?' All those questions do not help music. Those questions are obstacles. So, we changed the conversation and made it be about, 'How can we possibly do this? What do we have to do to make it work?' Those are questions that help music. Those are answerable questions."
They proved distraction enough to allow the band return to its best form. Miller admits that, with The Grand Theatre, the band wanted to return to its '90s sound. And, though he's a little cautious to admit it, he'd come to grips with something else: Despite past claims rebutting this fact, he now admits that the 97's are, and always have been, an alt-country outfit.
"I guess I've come all the way around," he says with a chuckle. "I've always believed that there's something reductive about it. Because it's not all we are. But if you had to call yourself something...I guess, if I had a gun to my head, and had to say what kind of music the Old 97's make, it'd have to be alt-country. For fuck's sake, we were there when they coined the term. The first time it got used was in a freaking article about our band. OK, that's fine. I'll be that."
And, for the better, that's what the first volume of The Grand Theatre is, too. It remains to be seen how the second volume, which, as a concession to the band's double-disc desires, will be released next May, will play out (Miller admits that, on some level, it's a softer record than the first), but this one is vintage 97's.
The opening and title track finds Miller snarling over a classic Bethea surf-guitar line, boasting that "We know where we are/We're not very far away" in the song's chorus. It might not be intended as a statement of the band's mindset on this release, but it sure serves as one. The third track, "The Magician," again finds the band in its wheelhouse, combining its storytelling and love-song writing talents over a driving rhythm from Peeples and Hammond. Hammond's two songs at the band's front similarly go back to touchstones; their titles alone, "You Were Born to Be In Battle" and "You Smoke Too Much," explain their aim capably. Meanwhile, "Please Hold On While The Train Is Moving," may be this disc's "Four Leaf Clover." And it even has some experimentation in it: What starts off as a driving anthem breaks down into a surprising but welcome shimmy toward the song's end.
In short, The Grand Theatre, Volume One is a strong release. Front to back, it's the closest the band has, and likely ever will, come to recapturing Too Far to Care's magic.
More important, it's the sound of a band finally coming to grips with its place. That much explains "A State of Texas," says Miller, while also admitting that the song is about as annoyingly "jingoistic" as a song can get, thanks to its Texas name-checking premise.
"I do really love the idea of the Old 97's moving into the next phase of our career where we're sort of regarded as a staple of Texas music or some sort of elder statesmen of Texas rock," Miller says. "I like that."
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But for a band that's retaining the prowess of its youth, he might be selling the 97's a little short—especially, since, for the first time in a long time, they're once again proving themselves worthy of their adoring fans' excitement.
"I don't know if I'm ready to be an old man," Miller says. "But I'm ready to be a legend. How's that?"
He's joking, of course. Or is he? With this disc, the band is back on course to reach that end.
"Yeah, I'll take that," he says with a healthy laugh. "An alt-country legend."