[Editor's note: This review begins our monthlong look back at some of the year's best records. More details here.]
If gravity is a natural force that pulls things toward each other, anybody remotely familiar with the stories of most bands must figure that it’s inevitably loses its power over time – usually, a short time. Not so with the Old 97′s, who came up with one of their strongest, most consistent albums ever in 2008, fourteen years after that 1994 date on my copy of their first CD, Hitchhike To Rhome. They still show, both on the recording and in their live shows, blatant pleasure in being out there playing and making music with each other. What a concept.
This foursome (with no lineup changes; it’s still frontman and primary songwriter Rhett Miller, guitarist Ken Bethea, bassist Murry Hammond, and drummer Philip Peeples) is fluent in a number of musical languages by now – pop tones from the Phil Spector years through the ’80s and beyond; roots rock; Anglo-Texan singer-songwriter nuanced irony; new doses, on this outing, of Latin ballroom rhumba; and still, as from their beginning, some twanglish. There are country echoes in “Ride” and “Color Of A Lonely Heart” (secondary songwriter Hammond can always be counted on for twang content), and lyrical references to emotional trainwrecks reminding where that band name came from.
Blame It On Gravity offers infectious – and, I’d suggest, lasting – hook-filled tunes (“Dance With Me”, “I Will Remain”, “No Baby I”) with a level of verbal wit and inventiveness from Miller that’s hardly seen elsewhere in the alt-country vicinity, or anywhere in contemporary pop, for that matter. It’s brilliant, original stuff: “The room was full of surface tension…movers and martini shakers” and “I love the girl; she loves the sunset,” for instance. That’s more Cole Porter than Porter Wagoner, more Ray Davies than Ray Price – yet the Old 97′s’ sounds somehow acknowledge all of those. “No Baby I” tells the story as any good country song would, but Miller also clues us in (with both the writing and the vocal) that the narrator may be a bit of a jerk, copping to sharing some of that asshattery, not keeping it at arm’s length – which is gutsy, charming and special. As is this band, after all these years.