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Archive for October 12th, 2012

Review: Old 97’s, “Too Far to Care: Expanded Edition”

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Was it rock and roll?  Was it country and western?  By 1997, Rhett Miller and his Old 97’s were, well, Too Far to Care.  As Miller recalls in his liner notes to Omnivore Recordings’ new 2-CD expanded edition of the band’s seminal third album (OVCD-45, 2012), his “little band from Texas…had only recently gotten folks to stop referring to their particular brand of music as ‘rockabilly.’”  The Old 97’s were subject to a major label bidding war in which Elektra Records proved victorious, giving the quartet of musicians a chance for the “big time,” whatever their genre.

What the Old 97’s unquestionably were was antidote to the prevailing pop music of the day.  The Top 5 singles of the year ranged from hip-hop to novelty pop and everything in between, courtesy Sean Combs, Elton John, Aqua, No Doubt and Hanson – everything except the Old 97’s brand of amped-up country rock.  The original 13 tracks on Too Far to Care, all jointly credited to the band, touched on familiar country tropes: loneliness, troubled relationships, troubled women, imagery of bars, travelling and reckless youth.  But the sound was akin to an outlaw on speed: fast and furious, taking no prisoners.  This wasn’t country-rock in the sense of the late-period Byrds, or cosmic country like The Flying Burrito Brothers, or whatever pop-rock-country style in which you’d like to place Eagles.  Miller bristled at the “rockabilly” label, and it certainly wasn’t pop-country like Shania Twain or today’s Taylor Swift, either.

But it’s so decreed in the music business that everything must have a name, The Old 97’s were considered to be at the vanguard of “alt-country.”  Fifteen years on, their music sounds squarely in the rock tradition, with a C&W influence adding flavor.  The ferocious rock and roll attack of Rhett Miller (guitar), Ken Bethea (guitar), Murry Hammond (bass) and Philip Peeples (drums) wasn’t beholden to conventions of either genre.  The album, produced by Wally Gagel, sounds like a band record and a true collaboration in every way.  The group even chose to revisit a couple of older songs with an eye to improving them.  “Four Leaf Clover” was re-recorded from Hitchhike To Rhome, this time as a duet with Exene Cervenka of the band X. The raucous “Big Brown Eyes” also was remade, the original version having appeared on Wreck Your Life.

Emboldened by their youth, the group howls through the frenetic rave-up of the opening salvo “Timebomb,” the wry story song “Barrier Reef” (“My name’s Stewart Ransom Miller/I’m a serial lady killer/She said I’m already dead/That’s exactly what she said”) and the dark-hued ode to a woman “who broke every part of me,” “Salome.”  The eponymous lady is ready to “wreck another man,” her tale enhanced by Jon Rauhouse’s pedal steel.  Like many of the songs on Too Far to Care, “Salome” is crafted within a familiar pop framework, complete with a catchy chorus, but it stands apart for its slower tempo and the added color provided by Rauhouse.

There’s true twang on “W. Texas Teardrops,” which adds banjo to the mix as well as lead vocals by Murry Hammond.  Subtle harmonies enliven “Curtain Calls,” with one of the many instrumental riffs that burrow into your consciousness while listening.  The ample instrumental breaks show off the tight, taut interplay between the four players and the occasional guests such as producer Gagel, playing piano on “Niteclub.”  Though each member is accomplished, Philip Peeples might be the unsung hero of the album, his drums and percussion instantly setting the tone (and keeping the beat like a freight train, natch!) for each song.  Rhett Miller’s vocals, able to be both forceful and languid, convey a wealth of emotion.  While the lyrics are technically ragged in many places, the turns of phrase are often memorable.  On the Times Square-composed “Broadway,” Miller muses from “a hotel room that costs as much as my apartment” about the titular place, “enough to make a crooked man go straight.”  On “Streets of Where I’m From,” he reasons, “Now I’m old…I’m well past 25!”  Over a torrent of blazing guitars, he asks “Will you sober up and let me down?” in the potent “Melt Show.”  Gagel’s production throughout is subtle but immediate.

What bonus material will you find?  Hit the jump! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

October 12, 2012 at 09:33

Posted in Old 97's, Reissues, Reviews

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Written by Joe Marchese

October 12, 2012 at 09:22