Blame It On Gravity

I have a theory. Somewhere in a nameless Dallas honky-tonk hangs a portrait of Rhett Miller. The image is clearly that of The Old 97’s lead singer but the hair is graying, the face has wrinkled, a paunch lurks below a too-tight shirt and the hands show the thickening of fingers that have spent years racing across the frets and up the neck of dozens of guitar. Strangely the cover of The Old 97’s new release also reveals an image of Mr. Miller; he’s young, vibrant, and almost painfully handsome with his lanky locks of blonde-tinged hair and creaseless face. How does he manage to remain so youthful? Maybe my theory isn’t so outrageous after all.

Rhett Miller’s looks are not the only thing that remains ageless about the Old 97’s. Blame It On Gravity, the band’s 7th album and first in nearly 4 years, bubbles over with the charismatic vitality of their earliest recordings of nearly 15 years ago (now out of print). The band has maintained its original line-up, a feat nearly unheard of in the hectic world of professional musicians. Besides Miller, Murray Hammond, Ken Bethea and Philip Peebles are keeping the (up)beat on the dusty alt-country trail despite the fact that Hammond and Miller no longer live in Dallas.

The Old 97’s were originally pegged as purveyors of country-punk but the guys have evolved their sound to include surf guitar, straight-ahead rockers, lots of punchy pop melodies with a touch of Latin rhythms peppered in for spice. Rhett Miller’s smart, funny, lyrics focus on the hapless romantic, the love-addicted loser who never quite learns the lessons of his failed relationships. “The Fool” is an example of this theme as Miller sings “…he was on her like she was a drug/hallucinogenic with no hangover at all.” Meanwhile guitars riffs and rapid-fire percussion propel the song to its conclusion. “Dance With Me” describes girls with “big blue eyes and flip-flop smiles” as targets for seduction by unscrupulous strangers; it’s also a superb example of the band’s convergence of surf, pop and country.

So goes the first five tracks on Blame It On Gravity; Happy melodies, snap portraits of lackluster affairs and desperate blokes just trying to prove their worth to the wrong girl. “She Love The Sun” kicks in at this point, a frothy cocktail of a ballad highlighted by whining guitars and mariachi beats.

Murray Hammond's lead vocals on “This Beautiful Thing” and “Color Of A Lonely Heart Is Blue” add variety to the proceedings. If you’re a fan of what The Old 97’s have done in the past Blame It On Gravity offers a nice sampling of their repetoire. I suppose if you’ve hit upon a good thing what’s the point in changing it. So there in lies the mystery of the ageless sound of The Old 97’s.

Rosemary Welsch (Afternoon Mix Host)