Last year the Old 97’s released what amounted to a comeback album. The band workshopped the songs on The Grand Theatre Vol. 1 at the titular venue in Dallas and recorded in Austin. Perhaps due to the luxuries of the setting or the renewed vigor of the band, that album captured the raw energy of their ‘90s output and re-emphasized the power-quartet democracy between the musicians, placing Murry Hammon’s shambling sideman charisma and Ken Bethea’s elegant guitar licks on equal footing as Rhett Miller’s witty lyrics and exasperated vocals.
Forgiving the aggressively stupid state pride anthem “A State of Texas,” which contains enough slack-jawed hillbilly sloganeering to make “Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue (The Angry American)” sound damn near poetic, The Grand Theatre Volume One shows that Old 97’s do have quite a lot to be proud of. It’s not consistently great (Old 97’s albums, even the best ones, rarely are), but it’s the band’s strongest bid to break their mid-career slump since ditching alt-country for power-pop with 2001’s Satellite Rides. It’s no accident that the songs collected on The Grand Theatre were honed with a week of live performances in Dallas, TX before being recorded in the band’s native Austin: The material here hits hard and fast, the first two tracks in particular recalling the furious cow-punk shred of their late-‘90s output.
On their eight studio album, beloved Texas rock ’n’ rollers the Old 97’s continue to produce some really great music, but also some really forgettable stuff too. This is the classic conundrum with these guys: at their best they are astoundingly good, a jingle-jangle amalgam of power pop, folk-rock, country, and cowpunk. But, at their worst, they just aren’t that special.
Old 97’s vocalist Rhett Miller has always been a prolific songwriter. Barely a year since Miller’s third solo album dropped, and two years off the release of the 97’s’ Blame It On Gravity, the alt-country heartthrob found time to write over two dozen new tunes. The result: The Grand Theatre Volume One (be on the lookout for volume two next year).
More than 15 years in, the Old 97's haven't lost a step. Concerned about releasing a double-disc set, The Grand Theatre Volume One anticipates its spring companion Volume Two as frisky as ever, mixing a Clash clamor with a two-step beat and gently exploring relationships real and imagined. The last couple 97's discs were perhaps negatively affected by frontman and principal songwriter Rhett Miller's burgeoning solo career, but here he seems doubly inspired, and the band charges alongside, particularly Ken Bethea, whose guitar play remains snaky and evocative.
Saturday night is all right for fighting. Sunday morning is for coming down. The first part of the weekend? Well, that’s not so simple. “Every night is Friday night without you,” sings Rhett Miller on the Old 97’s latest album, The Grand Theatre Volume One. The meaning of that statement ….