As much as country and Americana seem to revei (or wallow) in sad songs, and as much as we, the listeners, seem to enjoy them, there are welcomed moments of joy in our genre. Nearly 30 years in, Old 97’s continue their own brand of upbeat cowpunk on Twelfth, their latest album. The record is a combination of nostalgia and a positive outlook on our questionable future.
Coming into the writing and recording process, frontman Rhett Miller, now five years sober, wondered if he could still write – “What if I’m like Samson, and the whiskey was my long hair, and I cut it off and can’t write songs anymore?” Safe to say, he CAN write in that buoyant, Old 97’s style – even the album cover, with fellow Dallas icon (sporting his own number 12) Roger Staubach, in full scramble mode, connotes a sense of light-footed fun. And, while the tunes are mostly upbeat, the lyrics are a mix of maturity and fondness for crazier days gone by. The lead single off the album, “Turn Off The TV,” isn’t an anti-media screed, but a simple late-night come-on. There are requisite vice references – “Jim Beam and brick weed and a futon couch” – but the emphasis is on enjoying the moment – “I’ve got a window with a hell of a view/There’s a full moon sittin’ on the church next door.” Of course, the song is ultimately about getting laid, because the best things never change.
The very next cut on the record, “I Like You Better,” takes all of those indulgences of youth – sleeping in, playing guitar, drinking and even crippling self-doubt – and places them below spending time with the right person – “But if I had to forget it forever I would/Cos I like you better.” But even with the band finding its maturity, playfulness still has its place on Twelfth. “Diamonds on Neptune” is a callback to early days on the road – “I got a room at a cheap hotel/I got a girl that I don’t know well/I got a feelin’ I’m gonna let her down.” And “Bottle Rocket Baby” is a true return to the 97’s rodeo buzzsaw style, even if it, too, is tinged with rearview melancholy – “Dallas is a woman I don’t know anymore.”
“The Old Belmont Hotel,” though, is unabashed nostalgia – the song is built around the Dallas landmark, and it even opens with a string arrangement. Much as the hotel itself is being renovated, Miller frames his take on relationships – friends, spouses and bands – as a similarly arduous reno project – “So many times good buildings get torn down/Razed to the ground because work is hard to do.” As a band that’s remained intact for nearly three decades, Old 97’s are clearly ready to put in the work.
Twelfth was produced and mixed by Vance Powell, recorded by Powell and Michael Fahey and mastered by Pete Lyman. All songs were written by Rhett Miller, with the exception of “Happy Hour” and “Why Don’t We Ever Say We’re Sorry,” written and sung by Murry Hammond. Old 97’s, in their original lineup, are Miller, bassist Hammond, guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples. Additional musicians on the record include Jason Garner (drums), Eleonore Denig (violin and string arrangement) and Cara Fox (cello),
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