I remember the first time I saw the Old 97’s live. It must have been around 2009, 2010, down at South Street Seaport for some god-awful summer festival. Usually, the acts they get are subpar to subzero, but I was impressed by the Old 97’s. Following the show, the first song I downloaded was “Question,” a saccharine story of engagement. As the owner of many Rhett Miller solo and Old 97’s albums, I now know “Question” was more a “Rhett Miller” song than an “Old 97’s” song. If you’ve studied Rhett and the band as I have, you know what I mean.
Their new album, Graveyard Whistling, came out late last week, and it’s worth a listen if not a purchase. Anyone who loves Too Far to Care, a 1997 release that plays like a greatest hits album, will fall in love with Graveyard Whistling from the very first note.
The album kicks off with a shimmering cymbal and a Texan guitar’s narrative in “I Don’t Wanna Die in This Town.” Rhett Miller’s vocals layer in, a perfect timber, “How did I get here? / Where was I headed? / You know I can’t recall.” At the chorus, the song picks up with a giddy-up drum beat, staccato and brief, as the song hurtles toward the next stanza, omitting the drums altogether: “I’ll entertain you / But I can’t save you / Although I’m doing the best I can / I’m just a singer in a rock ‘n roll band.” I’ll pause for a moment on this note. (No pun intended.) The Old 97’s are frequently cited as the darling of alt-country, but I don’t get it. Sure, I can hear country-inflected guitar solos and the drum beat–albeit played faster–of a many country song before. But this is a rock ‘n roll band. Listen to the singer.
While we’re here, I’ll note that most of the songs are written by the Old 97’s, but a few feature additional contributors. “Bad Luck Charm,” track two, is one of them. Co-written by Caitlin Rose–daughter of the legendary Liz Rose, aka co-writer of “White Horse” by the beloved Lady Swift–“Bad Luck Charm” focuses yet again on Rhett’s outsider/underdog status. He sings in the chorus, “If you cross your fingers, you can hang me on your arm / Baby I’m a bad luck charm.” This isn’t new material. That less-than status permeates his music. Think of “Four Leaf Clover” (“I’m still a drunk, I’m still a loser / Living in a lousy neighborhood”) or even “Wish the Worst” (“I guess I’m a loser, but I like being miserable / Swimming in sin”). He’s either a cynic or he doesn’t own a mirror. Could be both. I digress.
It’s challenging to select just a few standout hits, when I truly love so many of the tracks on Graveyard Whistling. The album’s namesake crops up in “Irish Whiskey Pretty Girls” in which Rhett sings, “I never was good at talkin’ / Graveyard whistlin’s more my thing / I got 96 tears and only one wedding ring.” This song takes up the “99 Problems” idea from Jay-Z with a twist and sets it to a fast beat and a fiddle on the backdrop: “I got 99 problems to be thankful for / But a half a clue ain’t one.”
If I had to pick two favorites, “All Who Wander” and “She Hates Everybody” may top the list, although “Jesus Loves You” is up there, too. The Old 97’s have been tourin’ talk shows playing “All Who Wander,” and it’s no wonder. It’s a moody, quiet, and sentimental tune with a catchy chorus: “All who wander are not lost / Just me / Just me / Signals and wires both get crossed / Remember back when you got lost with me.” Here’s Rhett once again positioning himself as second to the rest, as being “lost.” In “She Hates Everybody,” Rhett sings about a girl who’s a “misanthrope”–that he and his co-writers were able to work this word into a song deserves all the stars, in my opinion. It’s a clever tune about someone I know (maybe me, but who’s counting: “It was so hard to win her heart / It’s hard as a rock except for one little part.”). “Jesus Loves You” feels like a song by Alex Battles (“Jesus Wore Flip Flops”), my favorite local songwriter. Neither song necessarily undermines Jesus, but both consider the similarities (and differences) man has to the Son of God. In the Old 97’s song, Rhett sings, “You can talk to him all night / But I’m right here / He makes wine from water / But I just bought you a beer.” In another stanza, the song goes, “I’m not discountin’ the sermon on the mount an’ / Oh when I was little you know they dunked me in the fountain.” Very funny.
Rhett’s voice sounds better than ever across the entire album. His penchant for vibrato is on full display, and his ability to transform his voice from mellow crooning to an impassioned expression within just a few lines continues to impress. The band isn’t too shabby either. Ken’s guitar playing is fantastic, while Philip on drums and Murry on bass (and his own song, “Nobody”–very good) are excellent.
In my opinion, Graveyard Whistling is the best Old 97’s album in 10 years. I liked Most Messed Up, and The Grand Theatre (Volume 1 and Volume 2) albums were pretty good. These three albums had a handful of good songs apiece, but Graveyard Whistling is solid from beginning to end. And, when I put my Old 97’s music on shuffle, the new Graveyard Whistling songs fit right in alongside “Doreen” and “Barrier Reef.”
If you haven’t caught the band on TV yet, have a listen to the new album. Even just a minute or so will convince you this one’s worth buying.