Old 97s "Graveyard Whistling"

Old 97s have been churning out great albums that straddle the rail between country and rock for twenty-five years. Too twangy for the rockers but too edgy for Nashville, the band’s grasp on commercial success has remained nominal. For sure they’ve built an absolutely rabid fan base that clamor for new material and hoot and holler at the band’s rowdy unrehearsed shows. The twanging guitars, the romping rhythms, driving backbeat, and all the melodic madness are everything a wrangler or cowgirl might want in a band. Toss in Rhett Miller’s brainy lyrics and sweet tenor and you’ve got the recipe for some sweet tunes. This band should be topping the charts, or at least some chart.

Life isn’t fair, a point Rhett Miller has pointed out numerous times in his lyrics, and his self-effacing tendencies make this reality bearable. Graveyard Whistling is loaded with introspective meanderings that suggest the singer’s got his fingers crossed behind his back as he belts out his timorous anthems. The album is also packed with some of the best melodies the band has produced in years. Opening with “I Don’t Wanna Die in this Town” and “Bad Luck Charm,” we discover men who’ve made bad choices or are a woman’s bad choice. “All Who Wander” captures the sad thoughts of a hapless loser. Miller isn’t above sneaking bravado into his songs. “Jesus Loves You” captures a randy barfly’s attempts at wooing a Christian lady with hilariously audacious lines like “He’s got the whole world in his hands/ I’ve got Lone Star in cans.”

Rhett Miller has written about the almighty before but never with the satirical accuracy of “Good With God,” in which an over-confident wretch assumes his own judgement. God, as played by Brandi Carlile, has an unsettling response for the woe-begotten man. Graveyard Whistling continues in this vein, with drinking songs that kick with banjo and fiddles, and a few self-exploratory ballads. The music is so infectious that it’s easy to overlook the genius of Miller’s lyrics. Don’t do that. Old 97s balance of hook-laden music and erudite lyrics allow you to feel smart while hitting the dance floor.

Rosemary Welsch (Afternoon Mix)

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