Wednesday, December 19th, 2012 | musiX | No Comments
21. Tyvek – On Triple Beams (In The Red)
22. La Sera – Sees the Light (Hardly Art)
23. Skelator – Agents of Power (Metal On Metal Records)
24. Rhett Miller - The Dreamer (Maximum Sunshine)
25. The Pharmacy - Stoned & Alone (Seayou Records)
Monday, January 31st, 2011 | musiX, pdX | 3 Comments
“I’m surprised no one’s had a seizure yet.” Old 97′s frontman Rhett Miller delivered a good-natured jab in what ended up being a running joke throughout the night: the Wonder Ballroom’s newly installed stage lights, which were a cross between a KISS concert and a Pink Floyd Laser Spectacular. At one point I thought the mother ship had returned from Abell 3267.
The lights were only a slight distraction from an otherwise typically gritty and sweaty Old 97′s performance. TDoL’s favorite Dallas drawlers are a live band through and through, which might have something to do with their longevity. With the music industry shifting (or collapsing, depending on how you look at it) one thing is clear: If a band wants to make a career of it, you’d better hit the road and play like you mean it … or sell songs to TV commercials. The Old 97′s have wisely done both. Call it survival skills.
OK, it doesn’t hurt that Miller and Co. have almost two decades-worth of sturdy pop gems to pull from, most of which they can crank out on any given night. And tonight’s performance delivered a few surprises, including the excellent “Buick City Complex” from the band’s 2001 Brit Invasion nod Satellite Rides. In fact, the thing I noticed most was how well the Old 97′s poppier material meshed with their twangy stuff. I don’t even like “Murder (Or a Heart Attack).” But the song—peeled from the band’s most polished effort Fight Songs—became a raucous power pop classic on this night. Bassist Murry Hammond divvied up a fair amount of his tunes, including the neo-Cash shuffler “You Were Born to Be In Battle,” “W. TX Teardrops” and the acoustic heartbreaker “Valentine,” one of the band’s greats (I may or may not have teared up a little, just don’t tell anyone). All this is backed by guitarist/secret weapon Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples, who I’m betting has to change his snare head after every show.
The performance was marked by the occasional flubbed note and missed start, but that’s what makes it an Old 97′s show—this is punk rock at heart, and I’d trade in perfection/pretension for energy any day. I’ve also decided that an Old 97′s show is a good place for sociological experiments: The interplay between members who’ve shared the stage for 18 years—the grins, the glares. Not to mention the people who make up an Old 97′s audience: Mustachioed hipsters, leather-clad punks, pearl-button snap aficionados, babysitter payers, babysitters, me, you. All drenched in whiskey, a little Rhett Miller sweat and the Wonder Ballroom’s lighting system, which I’m happy to report did not cause anyone to lose their minds. The Old 97′s took care of that.
Photo by Mark Lore
Tuesday, October 12th, 2010 | interviewZ, musiX | 4 Comments
It’s no secret that The Days of Lore is cuckoo has a bit of a soft spot for the Old 97′s. That said, the band’s last couple of records lacked the urgency of classics like Wreck Your Life and Too Far to Care—just ask any kook who follows the band (2008′s Blame It On Gravity came close, but sounded at times like they were aping some of their older material).
Now I’m not sure what the members (that’s singer/guitarist Rhett Miller, bassist/vocalist Murry Hammond, guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples, for those keeping track—the same four guys that formed the band in 1993) have been up to for the past two years, but they sound rejuvenated on their eighth LP The Grand Theatre, Volume One (out today on New West Records). Not only does it reclaim some of the twang, but it one-ups that by dipping into garage and power-pop. “Every Night is Friday Night (Without You)” sounds like the Bay City Rollers playing a Dallas honky tonk with a roomful of six-shooters aimed at them. And Hammond’s “You Were Born to Be In Battle” is the kinda song you wish Johnny Cash recorded during his Rick Rubin years. I’ll even take “A State of Texas,” an ode to the Lone Star State that could be considered cheesy if it didn’t come off so sincere.
If there’s ever a band that’s brought the two disparate worlds of England and Texas together it’s the Old 97′s. Miller wrote most of the material for The Grand Theatre while touring the UK with Steve Earle, and he and the rest of the 97′s convened at Sons of Hermann Hall in Dallas to lay down what ended up being almost two-dozen songs (Volume Two will be out next May).
“It’s sort of that moment where those two cultures intersect,” explained Miller, who wrote the title track after Birmingham’s Grand Theatre. “And I think that sort of speaks to where this record is coming from.”
TDoL caught up with Miller to talk about songwriting, his hero David Foster Wallace and looking back on a career that spans almost two decades.
TDoL: You did the recording in Texas, and I know you live in the Hudson Valley now. Would you ever consider living in Texas again?
Rhett Miller: It’s a place I’d live again, but it’s a place I’d have a hard time convincing my wife to live. Years before we met she spent a year living in Dallas … well, a year living in Dallas one summer [laughs]. She was over it pretty quick. I come back enough to visit where I don’t feel like I’m losing my connection. There’s a song on the new record called “A State of Texas,” and the chorus is “I’m living in a state of Texas, and Texas lives in me.” I may not actually live there anymore, but I’m still a Texan.
Do you still listen to country? Is it still a part of your musical world?
Yeah. My wife and her family are all huge Willie Nelson fans, as am I, so there’s a lot of Willie that goes on in our house. There are a couple stations on satellite radio that play traditional country and bluegrass. It’s so funny, the similarities between bluegrass and punk rock are so great. They’re two styles of music that people never really think about being similar, but to me they’re right there next to each other—the speed and the intensity. All my favorite bluegrass and the punk rock and glam rock I like seem to have more howling vocals. I spent a couple of years right at the beginning of the Old 97’s as just a touring member of this punk bluegrass band called Killbilly, and I learned about a guitar player’s right arm. Like I can’t make a lot of jazz chords and I can’t do blistering leads but I can strum faster than most people I’ve played with. And I’m proud of that. To me there’s something very propulsive—it’s a marriage of percussion and melody when an acoustic guitar gets played like that.
Yeah, I’m definitely more into the energy and spirit in the music.
I think that’s what people look for. They want a release where they can enjoy themselves and have fun. I’ve had moments in my catalog where I’m sort of being introspective and quiet or sad or whatever, but they’re not my favorites. My favorites are the ones where people can really have a whole sort of joyous exuberance, you know? They get to be part of a crowd of people singing fun songs. I love that.
You’ve been doing this a long time. How have you gone about balancing making a career in music and keeping your integrity?
For me that’s always been a bit of a self-correcting problem. Every time, and there haven’t been many times, but the few times I’ve calculated an attempt to have something that’s really accessible or commercial it’s fallen so flat on my ears and on the ears of my bandmates. There are people out there that are really good crafters of pop—and not in the sense that I like pop music, but pop in a sense that it’s going to be popular. And those people are great, and they write for the Disney network, or the tween bands, and they’re making a lot of money and they’re not doing anything evil. But I just can’t do that, I can’t. The few times I feel like I’ve tried to be something I’m not, it sounded exactly like a guy trying to be something he’s not. I kind of wish I was good at it because the alternative is to make a living by going on the road and playing gigs. As much as I love doing that it becomes harder with each passing year to leave my wife and my kids. You know, that’s a tough way to make living, and it’s really the only way to make a living.
Is there an Old 97’s album that maybe you hold a little more dear than others?
I know that some of my bandmates have records they feel like, “Well, that was our watermark; that was our high-point, the moment we’re striving to reclaim.” I have a hard time thinking like that because the glorification of the past gets in the way of the present moment. I would rather think that the record I’m making now is the best record I’ve ever made, and I’ve always tended to do that. In retrospect I can be a little more objective about records. I think Too Far to Care was a really great moment in our band because we had just gone through the courtship of all the major labels fighting to sign us and we had a huge budget to go off and do whatever we wanted. We didn’t really understand how unlikely it was for us to have enormous commercial success, so that still was dangling out there as something that was really possible. But as things went along we thought enormous commercial success is reserved for a few people that tend to be a little more flash in the pan, accidental kind of successes. And we always said we wanted to be a career band before a hit-singles band.
One thing the Old 97′s have is a rabid following …
Yeah. From what I’ve been able to gather a few things happened: Right when we started in the early-, mid-’90s it was the beginning of the Internet chat-room phenomenon, so I know we were able to build up a little following through word of mouth—the beginning of what is now the medium for finding out about bands. I also think we were lucky not to have a hit, you know a song that became annoyingly ubiquitous. And we were lucky that we never really had a huge clunker. We never made one of those swing-for-the-fences kinda records that had a bunch of horns or a bunch of keyboards. I think there’s a couple records that I think in retrospect are a little less listenable, but even those—objectively speaking—have a few good songs on them.
Can I guess which album?
Drag It Up?
I’ve gotten in trouble with the band for pointing out that that’s not my favorite record before so I won’t dwell on it, but yeah that was a tough one to make. But if we hadn’t made that we wouldn’t have been able to survive as a band. It was coming out of me making The Instigator, and we were just feeling out how we were going to work in this post-modern music industry.
Is there an artist or band that has influenced you in taking sometimes bleak themes and setting them to pop hooks?
I haven’t really thought about it, but off the top of my head I could rattle off a few of the people I’ve been obsessed with at various points in my life. I spent my fifteenth birthday seeing The Smiths on The Queen is Dead tour. Even though Morrissey is famously mopey, there’s something about Johnny Marr’s guitar playing, and sort of the song structure and the liveliness of the drums and arrangements. Even the Buzzcocks—their songs tended to be kinda complicated with very dark undertones, but super happy, poppy stuff. I recently got to be friends with Steve Garvey, the old bassist for the Buzzcocks. What sweet guy. I was told that Steve Garvey was coming to this gig, and I was like, “OK, I don’t really follow baseball.” And then he walked in and he’s British, and I’m looking at him funny. And he goes [in British accent], “I’m not the baseball player; I’m from the Buzzcocks.” And I was like, “Fuck yes!” And I made him and his wife hang out with me all night long. We’ve stayed in touch; we exchange ideas about audio books—that’s what my friendship with Steve Garvey of the Buzzcocks is based on [laughs].
You were talking about audio books … I know David Foster Wallace has been an influence on you in some capacity …
Are you familiar with his stuff?
I’ve only read a few essays from Consider the Lobster.
That was a great one. It was such a relief because he had A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and then his sort of apex of his career in Infinite Jest. And after Infinite Jest he put out Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, which was … fuck, talk about dark. I mean that’s as dark a book as I’ve ever read. And the fact that it was so well executed made it even more painful to read. That was the first time I ever really got a glimpse into how hard it must have been to be as perceptive as he was. Anyway, when Consider the Lobster came out I felt like this was a good sign about DFW. It still makes me so sad that it worked out the way it did for him.
Were your songs more autobiographical when you started? Are they more character-based now?
I have a hard time even saying, just because I try not to think about it too much. I find that when I do, I edit myself to the detriment of the song. I guess if I’m an observer of my songwriting I’d say that the fact that I sang more about getting drunk and maybe having a looser moral code was more reflective of where I was in my mid-20s writing early 97’s songs. And now my songs have less of that which is reflective of the fact that I found true love and settled down and had a family. I guess there’s an element of autobiography with the debauchery that happens in the songs. I feel like it was only yesterday. If I feel like going to a weird, dark, drunken, angry place it’s very easy to go there. The new songs feel very autobiographical to me but when I sit down and look at them I realize this stuff is just a story and it could be anybody and the details aren’t necessarily the details from my life.
The Old 97′s are one of the few bands I know that still play a large chunk of their catalog …
You know what’s funny, is that twice we’ve done four-night stands—once in New Jersey and once in Dallas—where we did zero repeats except for “Timebomb” at the end of each show. Over both of those four-night stands we played almost 100 songs. Really, the number of songs we didn’t play from our released material was under 10. It’s crazy. And now we’re about to add anywhere from 16 to 20 songs to that list, so apparently our sets are going to have to be even longer.
And you hardly rehearse …
We do pre-production on a record where we’ll get together and play those songs. And like for me I do solo gigs where I play a lot of the catalog in that situation. Every night I dream about the band—I check into a hotel, or I’m playing a gig. That’s rehearsal.
“The Grand Theatre” – Old 97′s
Photo by Allison V. Smith
Monday, April 26th, 2010 | musiX | No Comments
Anyone who knows me, or keeps up with TDoL, knows I’m a bit of an Old 97′s freak fan. Why wouldn’t I be? Better yet—why wouldn’t you be? So imagine my giddiness when I saw The Dallas Observer had dropped in on the band while they recorded basic tracks for their forthcoming record at Sons of Hermann Hall in Dallas.
The following clip offers a nice chunk of a new tune, a song title in “Every Night Is Friday Night Without You” and a ghost story from bassist Murry Hammond. Salim Nourallah, who produced 2008′s Blame It On Gravity, is manning the boards again, and it sounds like there’s a lot of material. The Old 97′s always modest frontman/looker Rhett Miller explains in the waning seconds of the clip. Sounds like I better reserve a spot on The Days of Lore (2010? 2011?) year-end list.
While the genre never quite took off the way record labels had probably hoped, some of the bands did all right for themselves … or at least spawned bands that would go on to make some pretty decent twangified noise. From the ashes of Uncle Tupelo came Wilco. Ryan Adams left Whiskeytown to become the much-loved/hated, overly blogged, Mandy Moore-marrying fellow he is today. The Old 97′s? Well, they’re still the Old 97′s … although it’s not exactly the same band it was back in the ’90s.
Before going on to dabble in slick-produced power pop on major label outings like Fight Songs and Satellite Rides, the Old 97′s released Wreck Your Life on Bloodshot Records. It was a perfect fit. Bloodshot—founded in 1994 by Nan Warshaw and Rob Miller—tapped into the energy and spirit of punk rock as well as classic country, releasing records from Alejandro Escovedo, The Bottle Rockets and the Waco Brothers—not to mention Ryan Adams’ 2000 solo debut Heartbreaker, the label’s best-selling album to date.
Bloodshot is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year with the release of Wreck Your Life … and Then Some: The Complete Bloodshot Recordings. The double-disc includes a remastered reissue of the Old 97′s 1995 classic Wreck Your Life, as well as outtakes from the WYL sessions that ended up on 2000′s Early Tracks EP. It’s the first time Wreck Your Life has been released on sweet, sweet vinyl … and just in time for Christmas (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).
Wreck Your Life is arguably the band’s best, a full-throttle ride through sleazy punk rock hubs and Wild West ghost towns—although the pop that would eventually take a front seat in their later output still lurks in the shadows. “W.I.F.E.”—originally released as a 7-inch and later re-recorded for Wreck Your Life—sounds as if it could have been peeled from Buck Owens‘ You’re For Me. There’s even a sunshine-y chorus in the murder ballad “The Other Shoe” where a cheating lover meets her maker by way of “a blue-steel .45.” The song is sandwiched between a couple of cow-punk burners in “Victoria” and “Doreen,” the latter of which wallows in familiar territory of guitarist/vocalist Rhett Miller‘s book-smart, forlorn lyrics. In a vast sea of great ’90s records, this one is definitely worth revisiting.
While the Old 97′s 1994 debut Hitchhike to Rhome (released on Dallas indie label Big Iron Records) lacks the energy of WYL, it still captures the band in its fiery youth … back when Bill Monroe and Merle Haggard covers were fair game. “St. Ignatius” and “Hands Off” feel right at home next to covers of Haggard’s “Mama Tried” and Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys’ 1942 classic “Miss Molly,” while the gritty shuffle of “504″ and “If My Heart Was a Car” tap into those ’70s punk influences.
Amazingly, the Old 97′s are still together making records—good ones, too, as 2008′s Blame it On Gravity split the middle between the band’s country and pop eras. Perhaps the Old 97′s longevity is due to the fact that they never made anything that didn’t come naturally … not to mention they always sounded like they were having a lot more fun than most of their contemporaries.
“Victoria” – Old 97′s (Wreck Your Life)
“The Other Shoe” – Old 97′s (Wreck Your Life)
“W.I.F.E.” – Old 97′s (7-inch version)
“504″ – Old 97′s (Hitchhike to Rhome)
Wednesday, August 19th, 2009 | musiX | No Comments
Those in the know know that I love the Old 97′s—however I’ve never been the biggest fan of vocalist Rhett Miller‘s solo work. As I’ve said before Miller needs his bandmates as much as they need him. Obviously the Old 97′s wouldn’t be the same band without his vocals and sardonic wordplay. Likewise, when Miller ventures out on his own—as he has on three records (four if you count his pre-97′s release Mythologies)—he loses some of that twang and grit. Yes, the point is to not sound like the Old 97′s, BUT (there’s always a but) Rhett Miller shouldn’t be making records that sound so … how can I put this—VH1-y.
On his latest solo outing Miller teamed up with Salim Nourallah, who produced (kooky use of apostrophes alert!) the Old 97′s’ Blame It On Gravity album. A good thing. Bells and whistles have been scrapped for warmer, hazier production. It’s not only his best solo record, it’s his most varied. Of course, Miller’s proclivity for Brit-pop is all over songs like “If It’s Not Love” and “Caroline.” But “Happy Birthday Don’t Die” is a sci-fi tale that is sonically the weirdest and most unhinged song he’s ever written, while “Another Girlfriend” finds familiar ground in his band’s outlaw-country leanings. But it’s little things like well-placed hand claps (those in the know also know I’m a sucker for hand claps) along with sweet and understated harmonies, organ and tambourine that make Miller’s pop songs … well, pop.
More important (to me, anyway) is the fact—with the exception of “I Need To Know Where I Stand”—there’s no chance of Miller sidling up to Rob Thomas and Daughtry on some silly countdown. PLUS (there’s always a plus) with this record there seems to be less of a push to showcase that angelic face of his. Although it is angelic, isn’t it?
“Caroline” – Rhett Miller
“Happy Birthday Don’t Die” – Rhett Miller
I own both of Rhett Miller’s recent solo albums—full of well-written pop songs with slick production that coulda shoulda woulda worked their way into the VH1 rotation. After hearing them it was obvious that Rhett Miller needs the rest of the Old 97′s, just as they need him. But unless you’re an insane (!) Old 97′s fan, you probably don’t know that 2002′s The Instigator and 2006′s The Believer were not Miller’s first solo efforts …
It was exactly 20 years ago that a young, (even more) fresh-faced 18-year-old named Stewart Ransom Miller II released his first album with the help of future bandmate Murry Hammond. The result was Mythologies, an album filled with youthful angst and odes to fair ladies. Only 1,000 numbered copies were printed, which is probably a good thing … I don’t think Rhett Miller likes to bring it up in interviews.
I had heard of the record, but hadn’t heard any of the songs. I recently found a link to an interview and performance from 1987 on the Old 97′s fan site (via the Dallas Observer). The two-part interview was for a cable access show in Dallas called Hi-Res Diner two years before Mythologies was even released. Miller talks about writing angry songs about ex-girlfriends and his ideas for starting a band (glad he followed through). Now I’m not a violent person, but I have an uncontrollable urge to punch the interviewer in the face. Watch it here.
And check out Miller performing a cover of The Cramps‘ “TV Set” below, along with a couple of selections from Mythologies. Faux-British accents rule.
“Candy Apple Corkscrew Hair” – Rhett Miller (Mythologies)
“Iron Child” – Rhett Miller (Mythologies)
Rhett Miller preforming “TV Set” on Hi-Res Diner in 1987