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. It was the best thing the Olds had done in a decade, which sounds like high praise until you realize that Vol. 1 never matched the frantic, nervous, rambunctious vitality of their epic ‘90s albums.
Less than a year later, the band delivers on the implicit promise of Vol. 1 with Vol. 2, a collection of tracks recorded during the same sessions. There’s a slight drop in quality from the first-tier songs to the second-, and it works better as an odds-and-sods collection than as sovereign album, but the same spark that revitalized them in 2010 enlivens these songs. The Olds are still finding new ways to mix the country they love with the pop they love even more, and the result is a dusty sound that’s nervous and coiled, never laconic or casual like so many other Lone Star acts. The instrumental “Marquita” showcases Bethea’s jittery guitar work, and Hammond’s “White Port” rollicks along heartily, throwing disparate elements together—sea-shanty sing-alongs, yodeling, pop-song handclaps, Bakersfield guitar—until it all makes perfect sense.
On the other hand, despite a fine performance by the band, “The Actor” counts as one of Miller’s most lackluster compositions, a solipsistic take on stage performers that sounds like third-person autobiography. His vocals sound affected, the lyrics puffed up but so archetypal as to be meaningless. Miller’s at his best when his lyrics are specific and well-observed, when he’s more interested in clever turns of phrase than with emotional explication. “Ivy’s got a boyfriend / problem!” he sings on “Ivy.” “Ivy’s got a creep.” That song is a good measure for this album, as it’s been hanging around the Olds’ setlist for several years now, but “Brown Haired Daughter” and especially “Visiting Hours” match it line for line.
On slower songs like “Perfume” and “How Lovely All It Was,” Salim Nourallah’s professional production signals ragged and rambunctious without actually achieving either, but the Olds have never been able to find a good producer for their pop sensibilities. Even so, their unique dynamic comes through loud and clear—perhaps more mature and a bit less hungry than on Too Far to Care or Fight Songs, but vital and compelling just the same. Despite its flaws, Vol. 2 is the second-best thing the Olds have done in a decade.