Saturday, June 02, 2007

Old 97's (1997)

1997 should have been the year of the Old 97's, but unfortunately I didn't pick up Too Far to Care until late in the year. So, most of the time I spent with this album in frequent rotation was in early '98. Back then, I wasn't as adamant about having my year-end list completed by New Year's Eve, so I spent the first couple of months of '98 listening heavily to Teenage Fanclub's Songs from Northern Britain, Reservoir's Pink Machine, and Too Far to Care, trying to decide if they were top ten worthy. Old 97's would eventually slot in at #8, while the other two would get edged out. In hindsight, Too Far to Care was probably my second or third favorite album of '97, that is among those I was aware of at the time, and the 97's instantly became synonymous with the term cow-punk in my lexicon.

In early 1998, I crashed and totaled my 1990 Nissan Sentra. I won't get into all the details of that one (only a few people know the full story and two of them are named Scott), except to say that, right after the accident, that evil pager of mine went off and, seconds later, was launched deep into the woods. The car was really only totaled because it had a bent frame and wasn't worth much anymore. In fact, I didn't really bother to find out. I just called the junk yard and said "come and get it".

Anyway, the reason I bring this up is that, shortly thereafter, I bought the car that I'm still driving, a 1998 Subaru Impreza. You wouldn't know it anymore, but that vehicle was deceptively powerful in its younger years. What does all this have to do with the Old 97's, you ask? Not much, except I recall driving that car around and belting out the lines, "She said, do you have a car? And I said, do I have a car?" every time I listened to "Barrier Reef". I guess you had to be there.

Another of my favorite lines from that album was "Well I'll find another lady, and you'll wreck another man" from "Salome", Rhett Miller's ode to lost love. Really, though, I never felt like saying that to anyone. My favorite song from Too Far to Care, at least in the early days of my Old 97's fandom, was "Big Brown Eyes". But, it's not because I could identify with the lyric, "If that phone don't ring one more time, well I'm gonna lose what's left of my mind". Definitely not.

On the tour to support that album, Len and I saw them at TT the Bear's in Cambridge. In fact, that show was Len's introduction to the band. During one of the openers, who we weren't really interested in, Len and I almost played a doubles match in pool against two of the 97's. I believe it was Murry Hammond, the bassist and occasional singer-songwriter, and drummer Philip Peeples, but they had to go get ready for their set before Len and I finished off our opponents.

This also reminds me of the time Scott and I were playing pool against each other after a show at Bogie's in Albany. This was undoubtedly part of the Lifetime Pool Achievement, for which Scott and I decided to keep track of our record against each other for the rest of our lives. I guess there's only a 50/50 chance that the winner will be able to celebrate, and even that will be bittersweet, I suppose, but the tournament has been dormant for quite some time. In fact, neither of us remember what the score was, but we do know that it was tied. I'm thinking something like 33-33.

Anyway, The Reverend Horton Heat had been the headliner that night at Bogie's, and Jim Heath, the Reverend himself, was waiting to play the winner. Well, Scott and I were drunk, beyond the point that the alcohol improves your pool playing skills, and were so bad that he eventually picked up his quarters from the table and left. I'm not sure why we were at that show anyway, as neither of us were ever really a fan of that band. There was probably some connection to one of the opening acts, or maybe our friend Carl, who worked the sound board there until he was unceremoniously canned, got us in for free.

The 97's two earlier albums, Wreck Your Life and Hitchhike to Rhome, were very good as well. The latter wasn't very well regarded, and I suppose it did expose Rhett Miller's immaturity as a songwriter, but that quality also made songs like "St. Ignatius", "Hands Off" and "If My Heart Was a Car" quite endearing.

I was disappointed in the band's move in a more pop-oriented direction on 1999's Fight Songs. As a regular reader of No Depression, the power pop transformation of many alt-country bands turned into a divisive issue, with Wilco's Summerteeth being another prime example. Of course, the purists wanted more of the same from their favorites, but the flip side was the desire of these artists to avoid being pigeon-holed. Although not entirely in the purists camp, and despite the fact that 2001's Satellite Rides showed the band improving on their new formula, for me this was the beginning of a downward slide for the 97's, and Rhett Miller's subsequent solo material certainly adds fuel to the fire.

Seeing Miller play solo and attempt to stir up a little nostalgia by playing some of the Old 97's fan favorites was further evidence that these songs were missing a key element without Ken Bethea on guitar, and that nothing could ever match the cow-punk energy of the original Old 97's formula.

1 comment: