We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
If Old 97s don’t want to seem as if they’re finally living up to their name, they might want to consider a different approach to publicity. In guitarist Ken Bethea’s contribution to the press kit for the Dallas foursome’s latest, Drag It Up, the phrases “got married,” “moved to upstate New York,” and “quality time with the kids” are used in a single paragraph. True, the alt-country outfit has been obviously maturing for a while, and on albums such as 1997’s Too Far to Care and 2001’s Satellite Rides, it managed to both celebrate and mourn its no-longer-bar-band status, seeming to watch from a beer-blurred distance as its star deservedly rose. But it’s been three long, baby-makin’ years since the 97s’ last record, so hints that the group might be sacrificing its fiery spirit to domestic bliss ought to be taken seriously. Thank goodness, then, that Drag It Up’s opening track is titled “Won’t Be Home”—and that it includes the assertion “the problem’s getting big and it’s a compact car.” As Bethea delivers a fuzzed-out lead and the rest of the band backs him up in honky-tonk double-time, singer Rhett Miller assures us, “I was born in the backseat of a Mustang/On a cold night in a hard rain/And the very first song that the radio sang/Was ‘I Won’t Be Home No More.’” Elsewhere, the boys careen between foot-stompers and wistful ballads, but they’re at their best when they’re both rueful and yearning, as in the chiming, piano-heavy “Borrowed Bride.” A WeddingBells fairy tale gone wrong, the song is a litany of shoulda-/woulda-/coulda-beens summarized by Miller’s resigned chorus: “Life comes apart at the seams, it seems.” Later, the band channels its frustration with the fickle mistress of the music industry into one of its best songs yet, the cowpunked-out “The New Kid.” A broadside against disposable rock stars du jour, it features Miller as worked up as you’re ever likely to hear him. “I’m gonna toil away until my judgment day,” he growls. “Every year there is another one here/…You will be replaced.” His anguished shriek at song’s end is a perfect final fist in the air, proof that if his band has gotta go, it ain’t gonna go quietly. Not too bad for an old fogey. —Laura Barcella