critic’s pick: the old 97’s, “graveyard whistling”

The Old 97’s play as if the devil was truly on the band’s tail at on the onset of the new “Graveyard Whistling.” Against a frantic electric shuffle, a wall of guitar distortion and Rhett Miller’s reverb soaked vocals, the veteran Dallas troupe sound like the Son of the Pioneers crossed with Link Wray. It’s pop. It’s punk. It’s an Americana dervish. There is even a spot-on title to top off the intro tune’s electric Western mayhem – “I Don’t Want to Die in This Town.”

The results also continue a trademark sound that has distinguished the Old 97’s for just shy of 25 years. It’s remarkable the band – Miller, guitarist Ken Bethea, bassist Murry Hammond and drummer Philip Peeples – has carried on so long without a personnel change and with its overall sense of musical purpose intact. Not all of “Graveyard Whistling” matches the night train propulsion of “I Don’t Want to Die in This Town,” although “Good With God,” a piledriver of a collaboration with Brandi Carlisle that pins its turbo twang to a saga of a restless but proudly unapologetic protagonist (“I’ve got a soul that’s good and flawed”), comes close. Mostly, “Graveyard Whistling” is immensely spirited, darkly hued, ragged alt-country tinged fun with a lyrical menace that always keeps the Old 97’s cruising somewhere in the shadows.

Miller remains at the helm for most of this mischief. For the better part of the band’s history, he has been a quirky assimilation of cross-generational inspiration that falls somewhere between Buddy Holly and David Byrne. That mix surges to the surface on “Jesus Loves You,” a tune that bears a melodic similarity to the Holly classic “Everyday” although the music here has been revved up to a fearsome shuffle. The lyrics are a hoot, too, outlining the overtures of a come-on artist facing insurmountable competition for the affections of his intended (“You say Jesus love you, but what about me?”).

Similarly clever is “She Hates Everybody,” which essentially flips the narrative to detail a romance where a connection is made at the expense of the rest of humanity (“I miss her when she’s gone, my misanthrope”). Here, the drive downshifts to a jamboree groove that provides the tune the necessary lyricism to become one of the season’s most peculiar but inviting sing-a-longs.

Think that’s wild? Then get a load of the album-closing “Those Were the Days,” a play-by-play of hoodwink adventures that begins by crashing a retirement home (“We ate some Jello, we ate some Vicodin and tap danced for the old folks, and they all thought we were crazy”) before a chemically-enhanced tour of Central Park (“We floated off the grass into the galaxy”) bleeds into a “doo-doo-doo” chorus of pure pop confection.

That’s “Graveyard Whistling” in a nutshell – a journey that begins like a demon locomotive and ends by tripping to the stars. In short, the Old 97’s are merrily rocking on.



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