“Nervous Guy,” the last track on the Old 97’s fifth full-length, Satellite Rides, finds singer-guitarist Rhett Miller perfectly cast in the song’s title role, expecting the worst at his record’s depressing end: “When the loved one finally learns/That the fire no longer burns/I can see how this thing is gonna end.” He’s right, of courseburnout is indeed how Satellite Rides ends. But that’s his own damn fault. Although the band’s work habits and collectivist spirit mean that the songs get credited to the group, Miller has been the emotional basket case at the center of the Old 97’s’ increasingly gloomy music ever since the Dallas alt-country quartet’s inception in 1993. True to form, elsewhere in the track, Miller offers up a dirty-laundry list of his many reasons to disbelieve: “In the court of our friends’ opinion/In the right-cut eyes of all our friends/In the way the phone goes dead…/I can see how this thing is gonna end.”
What a sad sack. True, gifted pop formalists have a way of running out of steam way too early. Near-perfectly realized reproductions of familiar musical styles can be charming the first time around (the Rain Parade, anyone?), but what about the second? Or the fifth, for the matter? But, as longtime fansif not, apparently, the group’s friends and loved onesknow, the Old 97’s have always been alt-country in the same way that Freakwater and Lucinda Williams are alt-country. Like those other formalists, the band earned the “gifted” tag primarily via strategic departures from its chosen genre. And, as occasional alt-country artists as divergent as Ray Davies, Nick Lowe, and Beck demonstrate, when it comes to pop, the head of the class is often the class clown, too.
For the Old 97’s, genre-bending has always involved plenty of loud guitars; tuneful, sophisticated songwriting; and a bitter, perverse lyrical sensibilitynot to mention plenty of radio-ready riffs and choruses. On the group’s major-label debut, 1997’s Too Far to Care, each of those elements fired like a well-lubricated piston, with Miller in particular reaching ambitiously for the satori that has so far eluded many of his stylistic fellow travelers. On “Barrier Reef,” the album’s finest three minutes and 49 seconds, the Old 97’s made Wilco sound positively irony-deficient, even as they appropriated that band’s jagged country rock for their own nefarious purposes: “My name is Stuart Ransom Miller,” Miller sang, tongue falling out of his cheek and landing on the barroom floor, “I’m a serial lady killer.”
Eventually, though, even serial lady killers get killeda somber lyrical preoccupation that subdues the countrified power pop surging through Satellite Rides’ 13 tracks. The cranky and raucous opener, “King of All the World,” establishes the group’s nostalgic perspective this time out, with sensitive-guy Miller longing almost comically for the way things used to be: “Now I’m on my way up north/All it’s gonna do is rain/And I’m gonna wanna go back to the world/Where I was the king of all of the world,” he chants over his band’s careening, Ramones-inspired backing. “Rollerskate Skinny” follows suit, with a jilted Miller confessing simply, “I believe in love but it don’t believe in me.”
Musically, “Rollerskate Skinny” is the most Wilco-ized of all the album’s tracks, recalling the brighter moments of both Being There and Summer Teeth. But Wilco in turn recalls the Replacements and, more specifically, another one of rock’s beautiful losers, Paul Westerberg. Like Westerberg, Miller has a sharp eye for idiosyncratic detail and a talent as well for twisting a straightforwardly catchy melody into something peculiar. And, although he sounds like a pro compared with the cheap-whiskey-voiced Westerberg, Miller’s ragged, cracked-around-the-edges singing, like the head ‘Mat’s, is something of an acquired taste. This time around, though, the band’s forlorn tales actually seem to require his plaintive, Green Day-esque vocalsnot to mention the thick, Replacements-style guitar riffs that bully their way through the album’s sometimes wispy arrangements.
Miller isn’t the whole show on Satellite Rides, however. He relinquishes frontman duties on the skittering and frenetic “Can’t Get a Line,” which borrows its catchy main riff from Elvis Costello’s “Veronica.” Ever the musical contrarian, Costello used the upbeat tune to relate the story of a doddering grandmother who uses brief flashes of lucidity to tell her doctors to go to hell. For his part, however, Old 97’s bassist Murry Hammond chooses to follow Miller’s lead and merely uses it to berate himself: “I been moaning, ‘Oh, lonesome me’/You made a pigeon of my heart.”
Hammond also steps up to the mike on “Up the Devil’s Pay,” a well-crafted cowpunk genre exercise that’ll have you flipping through old Jason & the Scorchers B-sides in search of the song it sounds just like. (Or maybe that’s just me.) The track comes complete with goofy, high-in-the-hills cowpoke harmonies, but Hammond uses the occasion to sound the album’s reflective, melancholy theme one more time: “And it seems no way to comfort me/To take me from this station where I’m at/’Cause the things I love are leaving me.”
In other words, even urban cowboys get the honky-tonk bluesa sad fact that ultimately makes Satellite Rides one heartbreaker of an album. Even the fast songs seem tinged with Texas-sized regret and longing, qualities the band’s penchant for power chords and smartass remarks throws into sharp relief. Throughout the disc, the Old 97’s, like innumerable pop losers before them, sound as if they’ve finally learned the hard way that big hooks and wry words will only get you so farand that in both love and the pop charts, that’s usually not far enough: Five albums in, the Old 97’s are still no-hit wonders with a stellar reputationas a great bar band. “How can you have everything/And nothing to lose?” the luckless Miller asks on “Rollerskate Skinny.” But he ought to know: The rest of Satellite Rides supplies the answer. CP