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

Consider this: A ‘part two,’ ‘episode two,’ or ‘volume two’ is never better than that series’ first installment. Of course, any artist wants to lead with their best work and, if the goal of a trilogy is intended, end with even better work. That middle section can therefore lead to a bit of a slump. All things indicate that The Grand Theatre Volume Two will be the last album from the Old 97’s (for a little bit, anyway), and the guys offer a characteristically solid album that’s just slightly lighter than its predecessor. Unlike the slick Volume One, Volume Two is almost self-consciously ragged and unpolished. Studio chatter opens several tracks and others decay into uncontrollable laughter. It’s obvious that these tracks were culled from the same initial batch that yielded Volume One, if only for their superb quality. Rhett Miller’s sharply turned phrases in “The Actor” spin a tale about a thespian whose dedication to his role eventually takes over his life. In “No Simple Machine,” Miller tries to convince a lady (or perhaps himself) that she is more than just a fly-by-night femme fatale. As usual, bassist Murray Hammond’s contribution is one of the album’s undeniable highlights. “White Port” combines a barroom chorale with a seaworthy yarn of companionship.

While it’s damn near impossible for the 97’s to make an outright bad album, it does take some doing to rise above their tried-and-true formula. Many of the tracks on Volume Two sound like tracks that might’ve earned a b-side slot or bonus track position but don’t quite cut it on their own. Miller pines after even more girls on “Brown Haired Daughter” and “Perfume,” and the brief Texicali instrumental “Marquita” hints at a raucous surf style that has been gradually fading from the 97’s’ sound over the years. The softer side of the Old 97’s isn’t always the duller side; closer “You Call It Rain,” with Ken Bathea’s car radio guitar and Philip Peeples’ ambling percussion helping to create a sunny, summery atmosphere. The Traveling Wilburys might have skipped over their own ‘Volume Two’ for comical reasons, but the Old 97’s have shown that second installments don’t necessarily have to stand that deep in the shadows of their forerunners.

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~ by E. on July 18, 2011.

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