Everyone should have a best friend who’s as dependable as the Old 97’s.
That doesn’t mean your friend has to be by your side every single day. They’re allowed to come and go and live their own life. And they don’t have to give the perfect advice every time. In fact, there may be times when they don’t say the right thing.
But they’re always there when you need them. They show up ready to do what they do, and they always do it well. They’re solid and consistent, like a best friend should be.
There aren’t many rock bands more solid and consistent than the Old 97’s. Since the band formed in 1992 and started playing the Dallas bar circuit, they haven’t had a lineup change. It’s been the same four guys the whole time, namely singer and guitarist Rhett Miller, bassist and backing vocalist Murry Hammond, lead guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples.
They’ve released a new album every two to four years and have never significantly altered their sound, traipsing from rowdy country (1994’s Hitchhike to Rhome) to high-octane twang-rock (1997’s Too Far to Care) to well-crafted roots-pop (2001’s Satellite Rides) over the years. Along the way, the Old 97’s have always sounded like the Old 97’s—a dusty collision of Miller’s comely Texas drawl and hell-raising lyrics, Hammond’s bouncy bass lines and tight-lipped harmonies, Bethea’s searing solos and Peeples’ shuffling beats.
They were one of the very best bands of the late-‘90s alt-country bubble, and now, they’ve outlasted most of their contemporaries, too. On their twelfth full-length studio album, Twelfth, the Old 97’s dish up another dozen cuts of jagged roots-rock that further cement them as masters of the tunefully twangy.
The band’s best weapon of consistency remains its personnel. Nearly three decades and dozens of songs into his career (both with the Old 97’s and as a solo act), Miller hasn’t lost a step as a skilled chronicler of lovable losers, lust, love and the underside of life, and as always, he tends to gravitate toward characters who would rather run from responsibility than embrace it. “The real world can be really lame,” he sings in “The Dropouts,” one of the album’s catchiest songs. “You gotta make your own sunshine when you’re underground.”
In the flirty, upbeat “Turn Off the TV,” he namechecks the Pixies, T. Rex and Kids in the Hall, and Miller tosses a couple of lyrical callbacks for longtime fans into “Confessional Boxing,” a serrated punk-ish song about outrunning temptation. The galloping “Bottle Rocket Baby” could pass for an unearthed Old 97’s rarity from the mid-‘90s, thanks to Peeples’ locomotive beat and Bethea’s familiar leads. And “Diamonds on Neptune” is a perfect jangle-pop song that features a classic melody and another one of Miller’s recurring themes: “You know I’m always on the move. Leavin’ is what I do,” he sings. “I go from neon sign to neon sign.”
Elsewhere, Miller compares love to sleeping, playing guitar, self-doubt, money and beer (in the beautiful “I Like You Better”) and a refurbished building (in “Belmont Hotel”). Both are sweet, but they each contain an awkward cadence or two that distract from the overall song. More successful are “Our Year,” a strummy, hopeful tune about pushing through dark times, and “Absence (What We’ve Got),” a jaunty love song with a positive vibe that makes it feel like a natural album closer.
“Absence (What We’ve Got)” doesn’t close Twelfth, though. That job goes to one of two tracks on the album sung by Hammond, “Why Don’t We Ever Say We’re Sorry?” The other one is “Happy Hour,” a slice of East Texas country-noir that aligns perfectly with many of the songs Hammond has sung lead on over the years. Both are enjoyable, but they play more important roles, too: They provide a break from the Miller-led songs, they bring a bit of aesthetic variety to the album, and in a strange way, they act as reminders that you’re not listening to some other band, or even one of Rhett Miller’s solo albums. You’re listening to a very particular combination of players and sounds known as the Old 97’s, and they’re as dependable as ever.
Ben Salmon is a committed night owl with an undying devotion to discovering new music. He lives in the great state of Oregon, where he hosts a killer radio show and obsesses about Kentucky basketball from afar. Ben has been writing about music for more than two decades, sometimes for websites you’ve heard of but more often for alt-weekly papers in cities across the country. Follow him on Twitter at @bcsalmon.
Revisit Old 97’s’ 2010 Daytrotter session below: