The Old 97’s have been plugging away since forming in 1993, playing alt-country with such consistency that it might be tempting to take their musical strengths for granted. Picking up where cow-punk 80’s bands like Jason & the Scorchers and Lone Justice left off, singer Rhett Miller, guitarist Ken Bethea, bassist Murry Hammond, and drummer Philip Peeples deliver a sturdy, reliable blend of rock & roll with solid pop hooks and just enough country twang to fit in with what gets called Americana these days. Appropriately titled, Twelfth is the 12th album from the Dallas band, while the cover features Cowboy’s quarterback Roger Staubach wearing his no. 12 jersey.
“I remember everything,” Miller sings at the beginning of “Our Year,” which would be remarkable given the band’s penchant for songs about hard drinking, and that the band’s 2014 release Most Messed Up, which included “Let’s Get Drunk & Get It On,” presaged his turn toward sobriety the following year. 2017’s Graveyard Whistling tended to find its focus on life’s consequences and just desserts. Produced again by Vance Powell who did the last one, the band rocks consistently form the opening “Dropouts,” which remembers a time you don’t need nothing “when you’ve got whiskey and guitar strings.” In “I Like You Better,” he sings of a love that’s more attractive than playing guitar, getting paid and drinking beer, thus the creative tension where Miller now lives, where “Happy Hour” is over and done.
But these Old 97’s can still burn hot like a “Bottle Rocket Baby,” “burn your fingers and make you cry,” and a good time can still be had if you can convince the girl to “Turn Off the TV” and go back to your room; two fine examples of Old 97’s rocking like the good old days. The even harder rocking buzzsaw guitars of “Confessional Boxing” acknowledges one of the band’s old songs, “Four Leaf Clover,” when the band’s sound more closely resembled the howl of X, but here they sing “I had a four leaf clover, but those days are over,” even as Bethea delivers a solo that suggests he’s still got the goods. In “Diamonds on Neptune,” takes a bleaker view of life on earth for a working musician who’s going from gig to gig, “dishing out pearls to the local swine, while going from neon sign to neon sign.”
Musically, the songwriting remains strong, the band is playing with enough muscle and skill to lift up even a song about how “Absence (What We Got)” makes the heart grow fonder, even if the “whiskey turns to tears, it’s been that way for years.” Seasoned craftsmen, the Old 97’s continue to work that familiar musical territory that country rockers have been navigating since Gram Parsons’ work with the Flying Burrito Brothers in the 60’s, and the continue to deliver fine work that reflects their own take on the world. On Twelfth they don’t reinvent the wheel, just shore it up with a dozen more sturdy spokes.
Key Tracks: “Turn Off The TV” / “I Like You Better” / “The Dropouts”
Artists With Similar Fire: Son Volt / Drive-By Truckers / The Bottle Rockets
-Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb