The Grand Theater Volume 1

The Old 97s built their career as one of alt-country’s most consistently smart, down-to-earth, energetic bands. Fans flocked to their shows and bought their recordings expecting to reveal in a mix of twangy country and pop-rock. Originally a Dallas bar band, the 97s maintained the grit and raggedy edges that gave them their distinctive sound. Over the sixteen years since the band’s first album the guys have strayed occasionally from that format, venturing into studio production that attempted to “pretty-up” their songs.

The Grand Theater, Volume One feels like a return to the band that first thrilled us with their unadulterated country rock. I’m willing to say this is the best album the band has made this decade and one of the top 3 of their career. The album’s first single “Every Night Is Friday Night (Without You) feels like a declaration of intent – this is a direction to the band of old. Clocking in under 3 minutes the song is part country part punk. The lyrics are full of easy rhymes and self-deprecating humor. Same goes for “The Magician;” lots of almost ridiculously silly rhymes and jet speed playing. On past releases, including his solo work, lead singer Rhett Miller has leaned toward prettier, cleaned up his vocals. Not so here. Miller allows his voice to screech and go scratching on the track “The Dance Class” and even seems to be channeling Shane MacGowan on “A State of Texas.”

Murray Hammond takes the lead on a couple of tracks and his vocals offer a nice contrast to Millers. On “You Were Born to Be In Battle” Hammond adopts a Johnny Cash persona and is backed by big twangy guitar. He pops up again as does a tinny piano on “You Smoke Too Much.” There are a few ballads on the album but mostly this is album moves on propulsive rhythms created by Philip Peeples’ drumming and Murray Hammond’s bass. Ken Bethea’s lead guitar jumps out as the most prominent instrument in the mix. When Miller’s vocals recede it is his guitar licks that pick up the melody.

The Grand Theater, Volume One has been winning the band their best reviews in a decade and landed them their highest chart ranking in Billboard’s top 200. The Old 97s recorded the album on the stage of Dallas’ purportedly haunted Sons of Hermann Hall. They later put the final touches on the album in an Austin studio. If the band encountered any ghost while recording the evidence would indicate it was the spirit of a struggling bar band from Texas – nothing like getting inspired by your younger self.

Rosemary Welsch (Afternoon Mix Host)