Under Review: Old 97’s – The Grand Theatre Volume One

I’m a little embarrassed at how pleasantly surprised I was upon first listening to the Old 97’s’ new album, The Grand Theatre Volume One.  Y’see, I’ve been a fan of these guys for years, but their output since 2001’s Satellite Rides has frankly been less than stellar (and that includes three extremely tedious Rhett Miller solo albums).  Their last album, Blame It On Gravity, showed some promise, with songs like “Dance With Me” and “Color Of A Lonely Heart Is Blue” suggesting that they were plenty capable of either embracing or distancing themselves from the country-tinged power pop niche they’ve been carving since 1993.  The Grand Theatre, as its numerical subtle suggests, is the first collection of a few dozen tunes recorded by the band over the past year or so.  While the country influences are abundant (and still very welcome), some of the album’s best moments are the unabashed pop ones.  An appropriately dramatic title track opens the set, which quickly launches into early highlight “Every Night Is Friday Night (Without You).”  The song, which happens to be the album’s lead single, is a perfectly-executed blast of guitar pop crackle.  There’s a little bit of barroom bounce in the rhythm section, but this is the sound of a band aiming for the big time and damn near getting there.

Most of the songs on The Grande Theatre are not just upbeat, their pace is breakneck.  The lyrics, though, continue the group’s struggle to write songs that are mysteriously profound without being silly and predictable.  On The Grand Theatre, we get a little of both, with the good (“A State Of Texas”) far outpacing the tired (“The Magician”).  As always, bassist Murray Hammond provides one of the album’s best songs, the “Ghost Riders”-evoking “You Were Born To Be In Battle.”  Even guitarist Ken Bethea gets his chance to take the lead on the rollicking “You Smoke Too Much.”  The theme of vice appears elsewhere on the album, albeit more humorously in “Let The Whiskey Take The Reins.”  In consistency, quality and attitude, The Grand Theatre easily ranks alongside Too Far To Care and Fight Songs in the Old 97’s’ catalogue.  For a band whose wheels had been unfortunately spinning for the past few years, The Grand Theatre is a welcome return to form.

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~ by E. on October 8, 2010.

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