Sunday, January 6, 2008

Hit by a Train: Old 97s "Satellite Rides"

Cover of Cover of Satellite Rides
Out on the road today,
An “Old 97s” sticker on a pickup truck,
A voice inside my van said “don’t look back! You know, you never could drive…”

Hey, what do you think? I actually did see an “Old 97s” sticker on a pickup truck. So that makes me the new Don Henley, right? OK, moving on…
It was August of 2002, and I had just received my order from BMG (my record club). I was feeling buyer’s remorse, punishing myself, as I always do, with the self loathing that will ensure that I do exactly the same thing in three months. I do this by putting myself through a litany of questions, like:
Why, or why, did I buy yet more music?
Shouldn’t I have enough CDs by now?
And with 9/11 last year, aren’t there more important things I should be thinking about?
Shouldn’t I be saving up for my children’s education?
And yet, there I was with yet another CD by yet another pop band. I mean, really, how good could it be? Etc. So you’re probably thinking, just return it, right? What, are you nuts?
When I got over myself and put it on, I proceeded to have that all too rare experience: knowing, on the first listen, that I was hearing a great album. How could this be? Haven’t all the great songs been written already? Isn’t rock and roll dead? Isn’t there really nothing left to say anymore? So why do I keep hearing all of these good songs when I just want to sit here and be miserable? Yeah, I’m a lot of fun to be around.
I’m talking about the Old ‘97s – named after a train, which is apt - and their fifth album, “Satellite Rides” (2001). I understand that they started out leaning towards the “country” end of “country-rock”. By the time I caught up with them here, they were leaning the other way. Their prior record, the slightly more country oriented “Fight Songs”, is very, very good. It has some high points that are even better than anything here, but this one is more consistently great.
Rhett Miller is the pretty-boy singer, who is also the pretty-brainy songwriter. He has the energy and the voice to put these songs over, and never seems to run out of hooks.
The first song - “King of the World” – is typical. It has just way too much energy. It starts with a crack of the drums and before you know it, the guitar player is right in your face. And why is Rhett so happy? Well, partly because they recorded it before 9/11, but mainly ‘cause his girl makes him feel like, you know, James Cameron, I guess. But where’s the irony? (I need irony in case the artist turns out to be just marginally talented.) But instead of that, they go for a key change, which revs it up even more. What, he wasn’t happy enough?
And these lyrics! He actually sings “Don’t count me out, ‘cause I’ve got your number” and gets away with it, because the band knocks you over before you had the chance to think about it. By the time you do, you are totally buying it.
On “Rollerskate Skinny”, they do it again. At the end of it, Rhett sings “I believe in love, but it don’t believe in me” over and over gain. And instead of laughing at the self pity, you’re singing along. Maybe that’s the irony I was looking for, thrown in as an added bonus.
So by the time “Bird in a Cage” comes around (“I may be a bird in a cage, but at least it’s your cage.”) sadness is just not an option.
“What I Wouldn’t Do” to be friends with you. Friends. Yeah sure. Great rock and roll, though. “Question” is a ballad about popping the big one, and it earns every bit of the emotion it gets out of you. And it won’t make the guys squirm, either. And if you like philosophy, there’s “Weightless”.
About the band: the guitar player isn’t a virtuoso, but he’s so single minded that his solos hit like a hammer on nails. And the drummer is always there to say, you will pay attention! I haven’t noticed the bass player yet, but I believe that’s his job.
And they really know how to deploy harmony, too. Unlike some artists who use it like ketchup on a hamburger, they only put it where it counts, like when it will make a simple chord change feel like you’re driving down a hill too fast. Yeah, that feeling down there!
All of these elements come together to turn perfectly good songs into great ones. This is not just stupid, good-time, party music, but if that’s your thing, just ignore the words. Rhett sneaks in stuff about break ups, infidelity and even death. But the music does what great music always does - it admits to how lousy life can be, but by its very existence says, isn’t it great, anyway?
And that’s exactly the message I needed at the time. “Satellite Rides” threw a bucket of cold water on my post 9/11 depression and reminded me that it was still possible to have a good time.

Now playing: Old 97's - King of All the World
via FoxyTunes
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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

His name is really Rhett Butler? You're joking, right?