Album Review: Old 97’s: Graveyard Whistling (2017)

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‘I believe in love, but it don’t believe in me.’

I’ve loved the Old 97’s ever since those simple words, and the crazy catchy hook beneath them, etched their way into my consciousness. They seem to sum up the entire history of pop music: a clash between unashamed romanticism and the disappointments of a reality where it’s so often thwarted.

The line comes from ‘Rollerskate Skinny’ on Satellite Rides, which along with Fight Songs and Most Messed Up are the essential purchases of this killer band, who are often labelled as alt-country (thanks to their Texas origin no doubt) but could more accurately be described as pop-rock-n-rollers with an occasional slight country twang.

These fellas have been going ‘longer than you been alive’ as they memorably boasted on their last album, which in my case (24 years and counting) is certainly true. So where does Graveyard Whistling fit into their lasting legacy?

For the most part it’s a continuation of age-old themes for them, with lead singer and terrific songwriter Rhett Miller playing the Lothario and ‘most messed up motherfucker in town’. No prizes for guessing what he’s celebrating in ‘Irish Whiskey Pretty Girls’ and ‘Drinkin’ Song’, and he celebrates them convincingly enough for a married 46 year old.

The band rocks hard as ever to complement all of this bad behaviour. Yet for every ‘Drinkin’ Song’ or ‘I Don’t Wanna Die in this Town’ thrashing speedily along there is a ‘Nobody’ or ‘All Who Wander’ dragging the pace down a tad, so the terrain that this album traverses feels a little uneven. Powered momentum has always been the Old 97’s greatest pleasure, fittingly enough for a band named after a train, and so the urge to skip these less pacey tracks comes as a letdown after Most Messed Up’s freakish consistency.

That said, typically excellent songwriting helps to surmount these weaker moments. ‘She Hates Everybody’ is ingenious, a love song whose subject is a misanthrope, but, Miller insists, she’s ‘my misanthrope’. And best of all are a pair of religious-themed tracks where our troublemaker squares up to Jesus (‘He’s got the whole world in his hands/I’ve got a Lone Star in cans’) and God, who, ladies and gents, turns out not just to be a woman but a damn feisty one called Brandi Carlile (‘I made you up and I’ll break you down/I’ll do it slow, how does that sound?’).

So buy this album if you haven’t heard of the Old 97’s and then work backwards, because hell they’re worth it. Punk, country, pop, and classic rock all collide in a satisfying cocktail and the words are always well thought through. Here we witness a group sauntering into middle age and just starting to think about their own mortality and the possibility of an afterlife, but still walking through a graveyard whistling and singing ‘doo doo doo’s’ until the end.

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