After fully succumbing to his pop music impulses via the solo album route, bookish cowpunk Rhett Miller has finally reunited with his cronies in the Old 97's. And if the results aren't as knock-you-on-yer-ass as the band's best and brightest (Fight Songs or Satellite Rides), this band of Texas alt-countrifiers thankfully remain as angst-y, horny and drunkenly regret-filled as ever.
After the more rockin' movies of the last 97's release, new disc Drag It Up (New West) is a trace more country. (Some tracks sound like they could've come from one of the group's earliest twangier releases – like Hitchhike to Rhome.) Though Drag opens with one of the group's full-throttle cowcatchers ("Won't Be Home," which starts with a typically keen-edge Miller snipe: "You're a bottle cap away from pushing me too far"), there are more country moaners and honky tonk tempos on this disc than X-styled rants. And while the album as a whole is less immediately upfront with its hooks than earlier outings, the best tracks don't hide their pleasures for long. Only time the boys totally fumble it is on the album closer, "No Mother," a clunky attempt at a mournful country ballad that may make some kind of cyclical thematic sense (the disc opens with its narrator remembering the day he was born) but is too flatly earnest for its own good.
Far better are such typical 97's ruminations on girls come undone (the druggily swaying "Valium Waltz"), the fleeting nature of Fame or Friendship or Love or Something Like That ("The New Kid," "Friends Forever"), the pleasure of having a hot smart girlfriend ("Bloomington") and the misery of leaving her behind ("Moonlight"). The group even finds room for a Reverend Horton Heat by-way-of Nick Lowe goof-off (the Tex Mex flavored "Coahuila"), with guitarist Ken Bethea manning the suitably reprobate vocals. For all their time apart, the quartet sounds as tight as it ever has: with plenty of soaring guit moves by Bethea and a rhythm section that's the very model of rootsy rambunctiousness. As on other 97's releases, Miller occasionally swaps lead vocal responsibilities with Bethea and bassist Murray Hammond (the latter on the punkish "Smokers" and "In the Satellite Rides A Star") tracks, but it's Rhett's deep-throated ache that remains the center of the band. Few artists in country or rock are as capable of so unsentimentally and empathically laying out his characters' missed and messed-up opportunities.
A good album from a great alt country rock band, in other words: here's wishing that we don't have as long to wait for the next 'un. . .
(Note: For a more negative take on this disc, check out Dylan Wilbanks' review.)