Old 97's: Cutting Loose

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It’d make sense to assume that The Grand Theatre Vol. 2 from the Old 97’s would come out as a sort of leftovers collection from last year’s The Grand Theatre Volume One. While much of the music did come from the same chunk of material, the band threw in three newly written tracks and dug way back into their history to produce an album looser and rougher than its predecessor but far more than an odds and ends set.

The old songs, “Ivy” and “Visiting Hours,” are closing in on two decades old. “Ivy” especially seems to cover the band’s history, from early attitude to lyrical connections to Too Far to Care to Rhett Miller’s current interest in reading and writing genre fiction. Similarly, the new cut “No Simple Machine” uses something akin to “an Elmore Leonard story for the song,” as Miller describes it.

Perhaps because of the comfort provided in a long career, Miller seems to have hit a point where he’s reflecting on what art is, and some of that thinking is self-reflexive. The first volume began in the Tate Museum and contained songs explicitly about various forms of media; other tracks suggested this sort of thinking in their lyrical allusiveness. Miller is drawing from genre fiction, but he’s thinking about what that means, and what to make of the line between highbrow and lowbrow art. In doing so, he’s stretching back across the band’s catalog to interpret an array of material in ways that might be disguised by the album’s cohesiveness.

After Miller and Murry Hammond performed some as their old act the Ranchero Brothers, fans continued to ask about “Ivy” and “Visiting Hours.” Miller says the fact that the songs sounded great is “probably a testament to how many years we’ve been doing this.” At the same time, he says, “I was nervous about it because I didn’t want people to think that Rhett can’t write songs. I worry not so much about the perception, but that that would someday happen.” The nerves are unwarranted, though, and he acknowledges, “I do feel like as a songwriter, I’ve come to a new place. I’ve reached a new plateau that feels really good to me.”

It’s in this place that he wrote three songs between releasing the first volume and recording the second—“Perfume,” “I’m a Trainwreck” and “The Actor.” The first is the sequel to volume one’s “The Dance Class” and the second sounds like classic Old 97’s (in fact, this disc offers more of a throwback feel). That third new piece stands out as an oddity.

Miller explains, “We recorded it in one take. There are a few overdubs where Murry sang background vocals because he couldn’t do it next to the drums. We didn’t mean to do it in one take—we were just learning the song. We left the banter in because it’s so funny. We had played an aborted first attempt and tried to figure out if that was the right tempo. This was the first full-take of the song, such an unheard of thing in the age of ProTools.”

The relatively spastic song (busy enough that they’re still trying to figure out how to put it on stage) speaks of a performer’s nervous “tics and OCD behavior.” Miller kids that it “seemed nicely removed, but it’s really about me,” even though the song was inspired by a visit to the set of The Office and thinking about how mundane the lives of actors and musicians are, even if they’re so glamorized. This track, while largely personal, is a meditation not just on what art (or maybe art-as-entertainment) is, but also on what it takes to produce and present it.

“We had a day off in Salina, Kansas,” Miller says. “There’s a thing that happens about two weeks into a tour where you hit your wall, and the bus was feeling incredibly small. I went into the shower room in the hotel suite, the windowless room with a humming mini-fridge. I miss my family. I miss my bed and my wife. I miss silence and personal space. I didn’t own my own existence—I was being owned by it.

“It made me think about Buck Owens, where he says, ‘Every time I walk out on stage, I’m giving them something.’ It wasn’t really a pity party. It was examining this idea of does an artist own himself? Or does he make a deal? I get to do this thing I love to make a living, but the trade-off is I have to give my entire being over to this other thing, to the audience. It definitely had some autobiography. I was feeling a little bit sorry for myself but I was wondering about the nature of this business. You’ll have a look-at-me thing all the time. And that a certain point, ‘Oh, God, stop looking at me!’”

Miller laughs at the conflict but adds, “The things about performing that make me feel like I’m giving something away are the abandonment of my family for weeks at a time, the willingness to be in a sardine can with six other humans, getting up on stage and screaming until my voice gives out, or windmilling my arm until my fingers bleed. It’s those things—the logistics, the things you have to put up with physically.”

Miller’s thinking about the production and presentation of art informs the band’s recent work, but this disc doesn’t succeed just on the strength of these individual songs, as the sequencing plays an important part. In the past Miller had done most of this work, spending “days and days and days” putting the tracklist together. Even this thinking suggests the ties between the pop aspects of songs and the more traditionally admired long form of the album. For this release, the whole band was really invested. “It was conference call after email chain, and we went back and forth,” he says.

The band considered opening with “The Actor,” which, Miller points out, “would have set the tone for a really freaky, nervous record.” Instead the album opens with “Brown Haired Daughter,” a clever bit of misdirection. Miller’s plaintive “And I tryyyy” in a cavern suggests a narrator and possibly a disc full of uncertainty and defeat, but the track turns out to be one of smirking willfulness, a twist that opens up the rowdiness of the disc.

That attitude probably peaks right in the middle with Hammond’s “White Port.” The bizarre cut is officially a hobo song and not a pirate song (Hammond’s a railroad historian), but try convincing yourself after the exaggerated accent, sea-shanty/Irish pub vocals that begin the number (Miller’s quick to point out that he didn’t do the accent, but guitarist Ken Bethea outdid himself with his).

If the middle of the album is a ridiculous romp, closing it with “How Lovely All It Was” and “You Call It Rain” takes out in lovely meditation. The penultimate track is Hammond’s ode to a deceased friend. With that track too sad to end on, “You Call It Rain” serves as the “palate cleanser” with the bounce of a run-through to match the singer’s optimism.

For all the care in sequencing the record and the precision (even in the roughness) of Salim Nourallah’s producing, the disc maintains an appropriately off-the-cuff feel. The band is loose and the studio chatter included here almost gives the sense of overhearing a rehearsal. And while Miller is a meticulous songwriter, he says, “The singing of the songs is so second nature,” and he easily slips into character. When he talks about his reconsideration of the idea of the page-turner or the insipid pop song as a form of success—as media that achieve what they set out to do and satisfy their audience—it’s easy to think the Old 97’s are doing something else with their novel.

But as Miller talks about the genre fiction and fantasy books he’s reading that he once considered too nerdy, he also mentions his somewhat-lost love for Paul Auster and David Foster Wallace. The connected dots show the point where the new album succeeds, where artistic craftsmanship is freed from literary pretension to chase pop earworms.

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