Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Liner notes

Hit by a Train: The Best of the Old 97s (2006, Rhino)

Once upon a time, when the Old 97's were on Bloodshot, the myth was that they were "alt-country"--which was true in a way, but misleading. Nowadays, with the Old 97's on New West and Rhett Miller solo on Verve Forecast, the myth is that the band is an aspect of its lead singer-songwriter--which is also true in a way, and far more misleading. The 18 songs on this overview, four from Bloodshot or before and the rest from their miraculous five-year stay on Elektra, bear out the truth of both myths--all the better to explode them. Two of the three Elektra albums, 1999's Fight Songs and 2001's Satellite Rides, are song collections of a consistency rarely equalled. If this sampler is your introduction to the band, you can safely buy both now. That's because the sampler is not a song collection, not primarily. It's a band album--a great one. It rocks like an American-made touring van.

Proceed to track seven, which in its original incarnation caps the band's merely first-rate Elektra debut, 1997's Too Far to Care. Though "Four Leaf Clover" has its lyrical charms, it isn't much of a song compared to "Valentine" (chosen for this collection) or "Nervous Guy" (passed over, like many other winners), which close Fight Songs and Satellite Rides. But anchored by three unrelenting minutes of Philip Peeples's jungle toms, it's great rock and roll. A few seconds of clean sine-wave feedback set up the instrumental strategy, in which a dirty, melodramatic chord twice breaks into a dirty, simplistic, doubled "solo" before disintegrating into the filthy feedback of the final 20 seconds. Miller's vocal is throaty, rough, wild, like that of his star-crossed cameo partner, ex-X Exene Cervenka. Their love will never be, they're unlucky that way, so the only way they can do the dirty is to howl together. Miller's last sound is a scream.

"Four Leaf Clover" isn't even a high point of The Best of the Old 97's, just a vivid illustration of how the thing operates. It rocks, then it rocks different, then it rocks some more. Sure the opening "Stoned," with its droll "kisser"-"listen," "you're fly"-"that's why" off-rhymes, is twangy and midtempo, like the self-critical 45 "Cryin' Drunk" until Ken Bethea gets mad two minutes in. Then the perfect Bloodshot-Elektra segue, drunk-driving "Doreen" to Percodan-popping "Victoria," both twangy enough, "Victoria" in fact a two-step, but fast and pretty fast, respectively. "Timebomb" was condemned by the Alt-Country Bureau of Standards, and though Miller puts his best drawl into "Niteclub"'s honky-tonk penitence (which overcame him as he approached Cleveland one time), then comes "Four Leaf Clover," followed by a loving update of Marty Robbins's faux-norteno classic "El Paso" (cut for the TV series King of the Hill, the kind of non-album bait that so often diminishes ordinary best-ofs). Over more jungle drums and more feedback guitar, with bassist Murry Hammond joining the chorus, Miller takes the detailed lyric double-time without swallowing a syllable until what he described to me as the "total Beach Boys bop-bop-bop-bah-bahs" of the outro. The overall effect of this eight-song sequence is alt-country trumped and trumped again. That style is just one means to the end of interactive band dynamics over a wide spectrum of guitar-bass-drums--what Miller has called "the gritty sweat-storm that is our live show."

But by 1998 Miller was ready to establish himself as a major songwriter. Hence myth number two, the Old 97's as backup band. This happens (imagine No Doubt without Gwen Stefani, Them without Van Morrison), and Miller, as mentioned, is exploring the solo option. But his best-known outlet is a democracy. Miller, Hammond, Bethea, and Peeples have been a working unit without personnel changes since 1993. All are middle-class to upper-middle-class guys from Dallas and vicinity. Miller's family is the most distinguished, as was his prep-school education until he gave up a full scholarship in creative writing at Sarah Lawrence to start a band back home with his friend Murry in 1989. They met Bethea in their apartment complex, then hooked Peeples by trickier means. For five years, till they were done promoting Too Far To Care, they toured 100 to 200 nights a year, breaking only to work their day jobs so they could afford to sweat-storm some more. But romance took its toll, and also kids; Hammond is seven years older than Miller, who was born in 1970, Bethea eight, Peeples two. Peeples and Bethea are still in Dallas, where they househusband two kids each when they're not on the road. Hammond is married and an active church member in Burbank, California. Miller followed one love to L.A. in 1998, another to downtown New York in 2001. Rendered homeless by 9/11, he moved back to L.A. with his now-wife Erica. They've now resettled near New Paltz, 90 minutes north of New York City. They have a kid too.

Many bands--the Stones and the Mekons come to mind--have weathered wanderings like Miller's with no loss of interactive dynamics. But that doesn't mean separate domiciles are conducive to sweat-storms. Recording on Fight Songs began after only two one-week practice sessions a month apart, not long enough to dig into the songs, and anyway, Miller and new producer Andrew Williams were after something prettier. "I wanted us to think about notes and beauty as opposed to energy and insanity," Miller recalls. He also recalls lots of fights, which the Fight Songs songs here prove he won. Bethea's guitar is quieter even growling through "Jagged"; Peeples's drums shore up rather than speed up the songs' pulse. Miller's voice as well as tunes are sweeter, and the writing justifies the move. "Doreen" and "Victoria" are cleverer, but none of the earlier songs are as affecting--"Jagged" and "Lonely Holiday" leave breathing room for the vulnerability Miller runs over with a rhythm section on "Timebomb," "Niteclub," and "Four Leaf Clover." "Murder (Or a Heart Attack)," which sounds like it's for a lost lover and is actually for a lost cat, is lighter, as is "The Villain," a B-side bait cut that will grow on you. "Valentine," Murry Hammond's only lead turn here, is a lyrical closer played acoustic.

Old 97's album credits don't indicate which one or two songs per record are Hammond's--you have to listen for his lower, countrier voice. The ultimate proof of the Old 97's' indivisibility is that songs are credited collectively even though Miller provides almost every lyric and melody. "It was a consolation to maintain band solidarity," Miller explains. "We were making zero money. A lot of bands get rent asunder by the publishing split." Remember that Miller climbed off a creative writing program into rock and roll. Though we've been minding the music here, Miller's subtle-till-it-boffs-you tunecraft trails his wordsmithing for many admirers. Like the Old 97's' music, and also like such literary heroes as Raymond Carver and the great detective novelists, his language revels in the colloquial. Sometimes he'll repeat a word the way a speaker would and a "good writer" wouldn't--"Was a lonely holiday/I was alone, you were away," or "And you made me feel for all the world/Like I was the king of all the world." There are fancier repetitions, too: "What remains of the day remains to be seen" or the telling "I believe in love but it don't believe in me." That one tops off another of the clever if not flip girl-portraits that have studded the career of a guy who early on ID'd himself--he was drunk, it was a line, the night was a disaster, but still . . . --as "a serial lady killer."

Miller loves to play, especially with expectations; he delights in his own skills, and in his musicians'. This Kinks fan knows he's in a pop band, and that real pop bands play love songs. That's why every song here except "Jagged" and maybe "Cryin' Drunk" is a love song. Sometimes, especially when he was closer to 19, the songs depict inadequate females, although always humorously and self- deprecatingly. But as he grows up this happens less, and anyway, there's a crucial underlying theme: feeling jagged. Many of the romantic travails Miller depicts or intimates are specific to the life of an artist and/or touring musician, but they feel universal, and not strictly romantic. As he put it way back on "Stoned": "Take a letter to God/Dear Sir, I'm dissatisfied." Or as "Lonely Holiday" reveals: "Thought so much about suicide/Parts of me have already died."

Soon he cheers up again. The first Satellite Rides song here, which leads that perfect balance of Miller's beauty and his bandmates' sweat, finds him balanced on the sill of a picture window sounding like he'll once again be king of all the world. It's followed by his kindest inadequate-girl lyric, the goofy and affectionte "Rollerskate Skinny." Appropriately for a band showcase, the collection goes out on two live versions, a wild take on Fight Songs' "Nineteen" and my personal favorite Old 97's song. I have joined entire nightclubs shouting: "What's so great about the Barrier Reef/What's so fine about art?" But I still would have gone out on the modest acoustic number from Satellite Rides that precedes those two. "Question," it's called, and no, Miller doesn't quite pop it. But he sure sounds like he's getting ready, and he makes you wonder just what will happen next.

--Liner notes, Hit by a Train: The Best of the Old 97s, 2006 (Rhino)

Rhino, 2006