Album Review: Old 97’s “Graveyard Whistling”

A great band is a combination of many factors, some of them concrete, others more ephemeral. Some bands are great at enhancing mediocre music with a memorable image or shtick (KISS comes immediately to mind); others are so focused on the intricacies of their music that little effort is made to create a marketable image. But the best rock bands generally have at least two things in common: clever, memorable (even if nonsensical) lyrics wedded to energetic music. With their last two albums, Old 97’s have firmly entered the pantheon of great rock & roll bands.

Here are 11 great lines from each song on their latest album, “Graveyard Whistling”:

—“I’m gonna walk up to a wide-eyed girl / Workin’ at a counter wastin’ her life / And tell her I’m leavin’ tonight around midnight / You should come along / You should come along.”

—“Baby, I’m bad right down to the letter.”

—“All who wander are not lost. Just me. Just me.”

—“He makes wine from water but I just bought you a beer / You say Jesus loves you and I say what about me / Maybe Jesus loves you but where the hell is he.”

—“All’s I know’s I’m good with God / I wonder how she feels about me.”

—“I’m the only one that she don’t mind / I’m the one man outta all mankind / She hates everybody but me.”

—“I got 99 things to be thankful for / But a half a clue ain’t one / I got 99 problems I can’t solve / But a big girl would be fun.”

—“The desert children wanted bread / The good lord sent them manna / I asked just for one good girl / The Devil sent me Juliana.”

—“Let’s celebrate our sickness / Tonight ain’t gonna be here very long.”

—“I promise you I’m nothin’ but trouble / You got to turn me down / You got to turn me down / You got to turn me down / Don’t turn me down.”

—“Those were the days / Where were you?”

Nearly every song on this album explodes with energy and sound. There is rarely a slow or even mid-tempo number to bring the party down. Sure, as you can see from the samples above, the lyrics deal with religion, self-pity, and partying until oblivion, but this is record is, above all, fun — fun to listen to, fun to sing along with, and fun to play at a BBQ or a party.

Old 97’s have always been a reliably innovative band, but most of their earlier albums emphasize alt-country stylings with a generous dose of acoustic instruments and occasionally soulful, sincere tunes. With their 2014 release, “Most Messed Up,” the Old 97’s kicked up the tempo, turned up the amps, and generally reduced their alt-country leanings in favor of more straightforward rock & roll. For a band that had been recording since 1994, this seemed to be a welcome reboot.

And it also seemed as if the band had become more solidified. Lead singer and songwriter Rhett Miller has recorded six solo albums since the formation of the band, and one wondered if the band was being pulled in different directions. There is no indication of that on either of the band’s last two albums. It’s like the band has found a new reason for being, and that reason — gloriously — is rock & roll.

Will this slightly new direction disappoint or alienate long-time fans? I don’t think so. The lyrical content is as unique and clever as it has always been, maybe even more so (the songwriting on this album is credited to the entire band). Their instrumental dexterity is still in place, even if it’s louder. And the band still knows how to have a good time. If Old 97’s have ever recorded a bad album, I haven’t heard it. This is a band renewed: it’s better, faster, and louder and one that has not lost the elements that made them worth listening to in the first place.

“Graveyard Whistling” was released last February but may have missed your attention. I urge you to find it.

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