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GOOD, LIKE "IRISH WHISKEY": New Old 97's record goes down smooth

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ALBUM REVIEW: Old 97’s – Graveyard Whistling (ATO Records) 2017

What the listener gets on Old 97’s latest studio recording, Graveyard Whistling, is a solid, rambling batch of 11 songs that live up to the Dallas-based band’s key lyrical subject matter: relationships, drinking, being in a band, regrets and, on this go-round, religion and mortality.

So, Graveyard Whistling is an apt title for Old 97’s new outing, down some of the spookier and lonelier backroads (and railways) of their native Texas – and “Old, Weird” America in general.

Taking to heart some advice from John Doe of the punk band X, Old 97’s have collectively decided not to settle simply being a bar band. They have raised the “bar,” as it were, and stayed true to their musical vision. Not straight country, nor just rock n’ roll. It’s a Texas thing, as Okies know all too well, and something to admire, even north of the Red River.

And this is set to a galloping, ominous Western rhythm (think Johnny Cash’s version of “Ghost Riders in the Sky”) on the opening track – “I Don’t Wanna Die In This Town” – capably handled by lead singer Rhett Miller.

Yeah, feeling trapped in your hometown with few options is a drag, particularly when all you wanna do is “put it in the past, in the rearview mirror.” The band, along with Salim Nourallah, wrote that one.

How’d I end up tangled in your feet / When I’m just another black cat crossin’ your street,” a hangdog Miller sings on “Bad Luck Charm,” co-written by Caitlin Rose, a proto-janglebilly number with a charm all its own.

The frenetic "Drinkin' Song" is pretty much what the title says - set to a rapid-fire beat.

One of my favorite bumper stickers back in the 1990’s – when Old 97’s were gathering a serious following – was “All Who Wander Are Not Lost.” Miller and the boys have embraced this slogan for the mid-tempo, guitar-heavy song  shortened to “All Who Wander” (nice playing here from guitarist Ken Bethea) and with

The religious themes come fast and hard with “Jesus Loves You” (co-written with Nourallah and sounding like classic Old 97’s – with a characteristic wink and nod) and the oddly sinister “Good With God” (co-written with Brandi Carlile), which sounds more hellbound than heavenbound, particularly with Bethea finding a comfortable place with the rhythm section (drummer Philip Peeples and bassist Murry Hammond).

And on “Nobody,” Hammond takes the lead on this punkier song which incorporates Old Testament imagery as a metaphor of asking and not quite receiving what you originally wanted, as he sings: “The desert children wanted bread / The good Lord sent them manna / I asked just for one good girl / The Devil sent me Juliana.” A great opening line to a song that sounds even better live.

The pub rock-n-folk of “Irish Whiskey Pretty Girls” is best played LOUD and "Those Were The Days" - with its lines "pour a drink for the moon / pour a drink for the sun / any way you can think of to have fun. We'll get it done"  sounds swell and reminds me of their slicker Fight Songs and Satellite Rides era. Perhaps that was the point?

Graveyard Whistling is a great example of a band that has been banging around for over two decades and are quite comfortable in their musical skin, from Peeples’ drumskins to Miller’s well-worn vocal chords – just listen to Miller hit those final notes on the pedal-steel infused “She Hates Everybody”).

After some reflection, I'd say Graveyard Whistling is a more cohesive, band-oriented effort than 2014's Most Messed Up, which got 4.5 Rusties at that time.

No Oklahoma tour stops are noted here, opting mostly for music halls, theaters, upscale bars and a smattering of festivals. Too bad. Oklahoma has a healthy appreciation for Old 97’s. I remember this 2010 gig at the Wormy Dog here in OKC. Come back, guys!

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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