ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
The Old 97's are a band that's been pigeon-holed as alt-country. I'm assured that that is rock with a country twang. But our critic Robert Christgau says the band has always been more than that, and he thinks the Old 97's have just put out their best album in years.
(Soundbite of song "White Hot Sun")
Mr. RHETT MILLER (Vocalist, Old 97's): (Singing) There is a white hot sun on a big, blue sea.
ROBERT CHRISTGAU: There have been four and only four Old 97's since the band formed in 1993 - Murry Hammond on bass, Philip Peeples on drums, Ken Bethea on guitar and most important, Rhett Miller on guitar and lead vocals. They've married and had kids. They've scattered to New York and California. Miller has made two solo albums. But the Old 97's remain a band, a remarkably loyal and stable one, and they love to tour.
(Soundbite of song "White Hot Sun")
Mr. MILLER: (Singing) And I will ride, ride, ride. I will grow impatient for your love, but you will not recognize how I might die inside unless I ride.
CHRISTGAU: At the turn of the decade, the Old 97's peaked with two indelible albums, "Fight Songs" in 1999 and "Satellite Rides" in 2001. After that, they slackened slightly. But their new one is noticeably more taught and focused. More delicate, too. It's called "Blame it on Gravity."
(Soundbite of song "No Baby I")
Mr. MILLER: (Singing) No baby, I - no baby, I - no baby, I don't want to see you hurt yourself. Those tears, they fall like pearls. Blame it on gravity, yeah. Blame it on being a girl.
CHRISTGAU: That song, "No Baby I," worries me a little. In addition to the differences between us (unintelligible) you just heard, which Rhett Miller ultimately repeats three times, it throws out other images of disillusion and separation, like the reaper left at 7:30 took off in a taxi with a blonde. When I interviewed Miller a few years ago, we talked about how tricky it is to maintain a band and a marriage at the same time. Miller was smart about this endemic problem, but he didn't seem to have any answers beyond the usual keeping at it. And so I wonder whether, as with so many songwriters before him, personal pain has picked up his game.
Here, he describes a Caribbean vacation. But whose? Assume for a moment that his wife is the girl with the flip-flop smile and ask yourself who the I singing the lyric is.
(Soundbite of song "Dance with Me")
Mr. MILLER: (Singing) He takes her hand tenderly and he whispers sweet surrender, nothing is how he feels about the girls like you with your flip-flop smiles and your big, blue eyes on vacation. Dance with me into the ocean, roll with me into the sea. Don't tell me the world is in trouble. Do you want to dance with me?
CHRISTGAU: I'm not in the gossip business, and though I'm curious, I'm not about to call up this guy I barely know and ask how his marriage is going. In these post-Tin Pan Alley days, most good songwriters play with the first person, so it's impossible to know what's life and what's art, that's part of the power of the form. So let's go out on yet another ambiguous love song, "The Easy Way." The one thing it proves for certain, that the Old 97's really want to be a band.
(Soundbite of song "The Easy Way")
Mr. MILLER: (Singing) (unintelligible) baby, you can play a (unintelligible) on me.
SIEGEL: The latest album from the Old 97's is called "Blame it on Gravity." Our reviewer, Robert Christgau, writes the Consumer Guide to Music at MSN.com.
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