By: Bill Clifford
It's been four years since the Old 97's released the contemplative and somewhat somber Drag It Up. That CD found the band grappling with several factors; its own maturity as a unit, the loss of its major label contract, a vanishing genre (alt-Country) that it helped define and geography – several band members had relocated from Texas to other parts of the country and started families. Further, it was unclear whether they'd continue at all in the wake of singer/songwriter Rhett Miller's solo releases and subsequent tours. Thankfully, the band revisits its roots on its most recent release, Blame It On Gravity (New West).
Although the Old 97's have been surpassed in popularity by acts milking a sound they have helped to establish – Wilco, Whiskeytown/Ryan Adams – there've been many, many more which have fallen by the wayside – Uncle Tupelo, The VRoys, The Jayhawks, to name a few. Since '93, this quartet has stuck together, and Blame It On Gravity is the bands finest recording since its major label debut, Too Far To Care.
Over the course of fifteen years and seven albums, the band has worked to perfect its songcraft, creating an amalgamation of its musical heroes that mixed the crunch and clamor of The Ramones with the Brit-pop of The Beatles and The Smiths together with the twang of Southern county rock. For this release, the quartet returned to its native neighborhood of Greenville, TX, the Dallas suburb where the band formed in 1993, this time recording in the studio of Salim Nourallah, who'd been familiar with the band since its infancy and had played bass on Miller's last solo album, The Believer.
Blame It On Gravity opens with the frenetically paced "The Fool," showcasing the mix of singer-guitarist Miller's acoustic guitar in harmony with the twangy, electric strum and solos of lead guitarist Ken Bethea. The tragically tainted tale is the first of several songs on which Miller addresses death, purportedly obsessed with the subject since he attempted suicide at the age of 14. "Dance With Me" is an upbeat rumba that tells of a young married woman on vacation in an exotic locale dancing with a "foreign man who is gone and almost forgotten."
No baby I
No baby I don't want to see you hurt
You got them tears
They fall like pearls
Blame it on gravity, yea
Blame it on being a girl
The album gets its title from "No Baby I," a perfect 97's pop sing-a-long, which, if played with this much charisma by an American Idol contestant could easily be a showstopper. Bassist Murray Hammond turns in his best Buddy Holly impersonation yet on "This Beautiful Thing" as well as the lovely and reflective – and only slow song on the CD – "Color Of A Lonely Heart Is Blue." Miller's lovesick pop ditty "I Will Remain" would fit into place on any Beatles recording, while the punk rock fever and guitar clamor of "Early Morning" would sit nicely into The Clash or London Calling.
The disc closes with two more fast paced dirges, with Hammonds' aforementioned "Color" sandwiched between. "Here's To The Halcyon" once again finds Miller contemplating death; this time the song's protagonist is a sunken ships' lone survivor adrift on floating lumber, a man who previously "led a life devoid of virtue" and now finds himself at the Lord's mercy. And "The One" – written in '97 when the band first signed its contract – depicts the quartet as bank robbers, analogous of robbing the music industry and being paid for doing nothing at all: "I like you California/ Although I feel obliged to warn you/ We're going to rob you blind." It's a rollicking good time, and a great track to close out this highly recommended release.
JamBase | Texas
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