Old 97′s Return to Alt-Country Roots on Most Messed Up

The Old 97’s rose to prominence from the Dallas bar scene for helping pioneer the genre of alt-country in the early 90s along with the likes of bands such as The Jayhawks, Bottle Rockets, Uncle Tupelo, and Tupelo’s eventual offshoots Son Volt and Wilco (sound familiar?). Always on the cusp of breaking into the mainstream, they never quite made it, not even after being signed to Elektra records in 1997, the release of the critically acclaimed fan favorite Too Far to Care, and even an appearance in the popular 2006 rom-com The Break Up. Instead, they exist on the fringes of breakthrough success, retaining a loyal cult-like fan base, country music’s best-kept secret.

April 29th marked the arrival of the band’s 10th LP in their 20-year history, Most Messed Up. This album features the strongest return to their country roots in at least ten years. Since 2001’s Satellite Rides, Old 97’s have more or less drifted to a more refined, almost pop-like sound (while still retaining the main country basis of their music). If anything, I would dub Most Messed Up as a sort of sequel to Too Far To Care. This album is full of fast-paced, blistering cowpunk-style songs with classic alt-country lyrics, (which may or may not be all that appropriate at times). One track that really epitomizes the sound is the album’s second, Give It Time. It features all the elements usually found in alt-country anthems such as heavy distortion and catchy lead riffs by Ken Bethea alongside acoustic rhythm guitar and smooth lyrics from front man Rhett Miller. Once again, Miller does not fail to spark one’s imagination with colorful lyrics, introducing characters, relationships, and emotions, and of course, nights in Dallas honky-tonks. On one track, Miller sings, “Lay out a blanket beneath the water tower, and watch the meteor shower, heaven on display”, to give you an idea of his songwriting.

The album opens with the lyric, “We’ve been doing this longer than you’ve been alive”, which is most certainly true for many of their fans. After twenty long years, Old 97’s still deliver driving alt-country anthems, and show no signs of slowing down. Should you get the chance to see them (they’re touring this summer), I strongly urge you to attend. The energy and atmosphere surrounding their shows are rarely matched by acts today. The band hits the road starting in El Paso on May 5th.  Overall, on a scale of ten, I would give this album around an 8.3.

Mark “Live Love LAX” Austin

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