The Old 97’s are instrumental in the early days of this little musical universe we live in. What might be called their heyday was so long ago that not only does it pre-date Nine Bullets but we’ve never even reviewed one of their albums. (at least as far as my research shows) But with the release of Most Messed Up, their tenth studio album, now seems like a good time to talk about that stellar record as well as look back and introduce or reintroduce this seminal band.
As the title suggests, Most Messed Up is a bit ragged and unholy but it is also chocked full of well-written and glorious songs. Some people may say that it’s a return to form or grown-ups acting like young kids, both of which might be true but what I’ll say is that Most Messed Up is a fun record to listen to and Essential Listening.
I first encountered the Old 97’s in 1997 at a tiny college radio station in North Carolina. We played Too Far To Care, their first album on Elektra after releasing their previous album on Bloodshot Records. I was working my way into the dirty hippy music world but I was still into all kinds of things. That Christmas break a buddy of mine talked me into going to see the Old 97’s at the 40 Watt club in Athens. What I remember from that night, 16 damn years ago, was acoustic guitars played like punk, Buddy Holly glasses and longish hair.
Fast forward a couple of years and as I was exiting my dirty hippy music period the Old 97’s (along with Wilco) were one of the bands I went back and check in with. What I found was that Rhett Miller writes a damn good song and the entire band is incredibly tight. I had a great front porch in those days and one of my roommates got really fucking tired of “Time Bomb.”
In 2001 they released Satellite Rides and many folks believed they had really turned a corner from their ragged alt.country roots to a more pop-friendly sound. It’s not that I disagree with that sentiment it’s more that I don’t care. Without a doubt the Old 97’s sound has had some phases but with the benefit of a long history and plenty of time to reflect on their whole discography what I can say is that the shifts aren’t as great as they seemed like while they were happening. What holds true for every phase of the band’s career is that they write great songs and they play them well.
The opening song on Most Messed Up sort of deals with a lot of what I’ve been talking about. “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive” isn’t the best song on the record but it sets the tone well. Rock’n’roll has indeed been very good to the Old 97’s and they prove it throughout.
“Let’s Get Drunk & Get It On” feels as much like a anthem for the twenty-something pack than it does coming from a band in their 40’s but it’s catchy as hell and they are convincing in their sincerity. Maybe it’s just me but it also feels like the kind of song that people who are too old to follow the lyrics would sing to remember times when they could. To my ears it feels as much like reminiscing as anything.
“Nashville” features the classic Old 97’s drumbeat with enough spit, vinegar and slick guitar licks that a boy could expect. While “Intervention” has a crunchier and more reckless sound. It’s not reckless like a bad band playing in a bar would record but a grown-up recklessness. I’m sold.
As much as the term alt.country is generic and a bit irrelevant at this point, I consider the Old 97’s to be the very definition of the word. If there was such a thing, I would call the Old 97’s alt.country royalty and Most Messed Up is a big giant high point on the second half of their career.
So here’s what I want you to do: If you were a fan of the band’s older work but hadn’t checked in in a while, I want you to dig into this record and tell us what you think. If this is your first real introduction to the band, I want you to check out Most Messed Up but I also want you to cue up the Spotify and check out the first couple of records and let us know what you think.