Old 97’s- Most Messed Up 7.1
Rhett Miller opens the Old 97’s ninth album by telling us that “we’ve been doing this longer than you’ve been alive.” “This” means the stereotypical rock grind. A winding journey through bars, clubs, theaters, roadhouses and god knows how many other sort of venues, a never-ending circuit that has been occurring for over two decades now. Its cliched sure, but few bands have more of a right to embrace rock cliche than Old 97’s. They really have lived the most stereotypical under-appreciated rock band life, twenty years of making solid, rootsy records adored by critics, lapped up eagerly by a cult fan base but not embraced by a wide commercial audience. Their songs live in a happy medium between drunken regret and studious professionalism, unhinged energy and mellow contemplation. They’ve been doing this longer than you’ve been alive, and although they may not be as spot-on as they were twenty years ago, they still know exactly what they’re doing.
After the concessions of the aforementioned opening track, Miller lets loose a little. The rowdy, irresistible numbers “Give It Time” and “Let’s Get Drunk & Get It On” show Miller beefing up his trademark attitude a little, his confidence carrying through on both songs. “Nashville” is a wonderfully shit-kicking song, with lead guitarist Ken Bethea announcing his presence loudly and proudly over a set of golden, wry Miller lyrics. “Wasted“‘s subject matter lives up to its title, but works well as a whisky-soaked ballad with a chorus that’s certain to please at the band’s legendary live shows. ”The Disconnect” shows Miller at perhaps his most restrained, letting a great chorus take the spotlight from his tale-between-legs verses. “Ex Of All You See” is an affable late-album track that’ll also surely be a great live experience.
You know a band has chops when Bob Dylan agrees to let them borrow heavily from one of his classics. “Champaign, Illinois,” one of the band’s better songs, borrowed the melody from Dylan’s exquisite masterwork “Desolation Row.” But Miller makes the unmistakable melody his, and the band’s own. And really, that’s just the sort of band the Old 97’s are. They play nothing musically that isn’t familiar, but they play it so proficiently and with such confidence that they truly become a band that sits in a class of their own. Most Messed Up is the sound of a band that’s comfortable, but not content. They can rest easy, knowing that they have a solid set of strengths to turn to anytime they please. And with Rhett Miller’s songs hitting the nail on the head pretty consistently, they play like they have little to worry about. That ease shines through the band’s music, and Most Messed Up, making it a consistently pleasurable outing.