By Rob Dickens
They have done it again.
Not surprising really.
The masters of the meld of cow punk power and anthemic twang return and delight us yet another time.
For over twenty years and through ten studio albums, Dallas alt-country dynamo outfit Old 97’s have charmed and spurred us on. Their new album Graveyard Whistling (ATO Records) maintains the lofty standards that were set with the band’s iconic major label debut Too Far To Care. (Both releases were, in fact, recorded in the same Tornillo, Texas studio).
First up, to ‘whistle past the graveyard’ is to stay cheerful in the face of an upcoming challenge or to ignore a bad situation.
The second point I would make is that I got this record and saw the band perform the new songs on the very day of its release, somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico, on the Outlaw Country Cruise. This, together with repeated playing of the record, has embedded its virtues so profoundly in my head that I do not believe they will ever leave it.
From the opening bars of track one, ‘I Don’t Wanna Die In This Town’, you are able to let wash over the power chords, electrifying riff, propelling rhythm and Rhett Miller’s crisp, believable voice:
“There was a highway
Frank singing ‘My Way’
Or maybe it was Sid
Now I am paying for what I did”
Trying to get away for a more meaningful existence and pleading to a companion to join him. It is a powerful starting position.
‘Bad Luck Charm’ has a cheeky twang with Ken Bethea’s playing and the steel guitar a welcome embellishment. ‘All Who Wander’ slows down proceedings but injects some uplifting melody and an unforgettable chorus line, with guitar wailing like a forlorn siren.
‘Jesus Loves You’ throws up some engrossing lines, trying to convince a God-fearer of his charms. Keeping on the religion (or lack thereof) theme, ‘Good With God’ bursts out of the blocks, searing and resounding – Je ne regrette pas!! To the words “I wonder how she [God] feels about me”, God speaks back in the form of an authoritative and in-form Brandi Carlile.
‘She Hates Everybody’ …(but me) is full of more relationship insights and one of the best songs featuring misanthrope you are likely to hear! ‘Irish Whiskey Pretty Girls’ provides many solid reasons to drink, make noise and appreciate beautiful women, plus it provides more evidence of the genius of Fats Kaplin whose imprint here is writ large.
More alcohol and chanting from ‘Drinkin’ Song’ ups the ante even further pace-wise. ‘Turns Out I’m Trouble’ is confessional and self-reflective, a warning for others to not get involved…with a degree of ambiguity. The final delight is ‘Those Were The Days’ which recounts some past exceptional times and life affirming memories.
Graveyard Whistling is one the year’s stunning musical landmarks.