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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Old 97's: A heartbreaking good time

Thursday, July 7, 2011

On "The Grand Theatre Vol. 2" the Old 97's (Ken Bethea, Rhett Miller, Murry Hammond and Philip Peeples) stick to what they're good at, cheerful melodies paired with smart, dark lyrics.
Rhett Miller has written hundreds of songs between his career with the Old 97's and a handful of solo albums, but he's probably never summed them all up so well as he does in the opening lines of "I'm a Trainwreck."

I'm a trainwreck

I'm a mess.

But I'm gonna take you dancing

Put on your party dress.

The second track on "The Grand Theatre Vol. 2" pretty much sums up what you could expect from Miller's songs over the better part of two decades -- sunny with a chance of tragedy.

On the surface, the songs are cheerful, the things of dancing and party dresses. The surf twang of Ken Bethea's guitar and driving rhythms of Murry Hammond and Philip Peeples draw you in, make you shuffle you feet.

Likewise, Miller has a pleasant, welcoming voice, but the lyrics come from somewhere darker. His narrators and characters are almost always desperate, on the verge of meltdown. It's there in the breakneck pace of "The Actor" and in the toned-down sound of "Manhattan (I'm Done)", two songs that lie at the opposite end of this album's spectrum.

The juxtaposition works again for the boys from Dallas. The music's catchy but Miller throws out enough lyrical bombs -- such as comparing death to getting married with children -- to keep the inner poet stimulated.

The creep factor is at its highest on "Perfume," the lead single in which the narrator, paralyzed by a fear of leaving the house, watches his love live it up through the window. The song reaches its crescendo as our hero finally admits it's all "driving him, driving him, driving him, driving him" mad.

But of course, it's all sung to a delightful melody with a chorus of "it's a beautiful day outside."

Like clockwork, the new record features two excellent contributions from Hammond as singer and songwriter. "White Port" is a pirate sing-along that's provides the most fun moments of the album. By contrast, Hammond's "How Lovely All It Was" is this band at its most tender.

Other highlights include the opener "Brown Haired Daughter," which features some of the meaner guitar work Bethea lays down on the record and the finale "You Call It Rain," which shuffles the album to a close.

My spin: A-

"The Grand Theatre Vol. 2," is vintage Old 97's. It stands up to some of the best work of the band's career.

As the music world grows more and more digital, bands like the 97's who still now how to put together an entire album are rare. This one is best enjoyed in CD -- oh, that it were available in vinyl -- form.

Old 97's, The Grand Theatre Vol. 2

Released: July 5 on New West Records

The band: Rhett Miller-vocals, rhythm guitar; Murry Hammond-bass, vocals; Ken Bethea-lead guitar; Philip Peeples-drums

Producer: Salim Nourallah

Learn more at: www.old97s.com or www.newwestrecords.com