By Chris Moore:
RATING: 4 / 5 stars
Quality rock and roll bands are hard to come by.
When I invoke the term rock and roll, I reference all of its varied yet complimentary strengths, including but not limited to: electric guitar work (hooks or solos or, preferably, both), drums that make you wish you could play (or, if you can, make you wish you were in a band), country influences (just enough to ground the music in traditional textures, but not enough to be confused for actual country), subversive undertones that hint at the presence of sex and drugs around the corner from here, nods to the great bands and sounds that have come before, and a strong, unique, contemporary sound that belongs primarily to the band in the moment.
The Old 97’s have addressed each of these categories, to varying degrees of success, in The Grand Theatre Volume One, and the result is, unsurprisingly, a very strong rock album.
Many of the recordings that comprise this release are marked by an undeniable urgency, an element very much lost on many modern songwriters, even the good ones. The truth is that a song like “Let the Whiskey Take the Reins” would lose a significant portion of its subtlety and understated beauty if it weren’t placed after an all-out romp like “The Dance Class.” “The Beauty Marks” would lose its charm as a closing track if it exceeded the four minute mark. “Every Night is Friday Night (Without You)” doesn’t deserve to be five minutes long, but it’s one hell of a 2:45 acoustic rocker.
This sense of sequencing is apparent throughout The Grand Theatre Volume One, as well as an understanding of where to go musically and vocally, how to mix it up, and when to hold back. For instance, “You Were Born to Be in Battle” is quirky by virtue of sounding like a displaced roots rock standard. Any other song to adopt this sound would detract from the appeal of the aforementioned track.
This concept of balance is not a difficult one, although it is admittedly easier to deconstruct the results than it is to create the recordings.
Perhaps the most impressive balancing act is that of the band’s influences. The title track is soaked with the spirit and raw vocal tones of an early R.E.M. single. “The Dance Class” comes across as Zevonian in sound and spirit just as “Champaign, Illinois” does lyrically. The chorus lyric and guitars in “Love is What You Are” border on Beatles-esque, and “The Beauty Marks” sounds like an alternate track from a recent Cold War Kids record. And yet, with all of these intersections with other sensibilities and legacies, the Old 97’s emerge with a unique voice and sound.
This is not derivation; this is their music.
Rugged and rocking, yet betraying a fleeting but genuine flair for the sentimental, The Grand Theatre Volume One conjures the aura of A.M., albeit a more refined and dynamic take on the sound. Whereas Wilco’s debut album was met with a general shrug of the shoulders by most critics, there are too many well-produced, spot-on performances on this album for it to be passed over by the critical community.
One would hope.
Speaking of hope, I do feel a bit tentative about the concept of a Volume Two, culled from the same sessions, being released next year. It seems to me that this sort of recording process whereby dozens of tracks are laid down en masse is problematic at best. Reminded of the Barenaked Ladies’ similar process for Are Me and Are Men, I posit the following questions: Are the best songs being split between both records? If so, then why not make some difficult decisions on the chopping block and release one album that will be the best possible Old 97’s record? If not, then will Volume Two emerge as a sort of b-sides and unreleased tracks compilation that is destined to disappoint in the shadow of Volume One?
Regardless of how the next installment plays out, it is at least safe to say that this edition of The Grand Theatre is a standout effort from this prolific band. Their brand of alt-country is about as far away from the mainstream as possible, couched as it is in the antiquity of traditional country/rock and the since-sidelined sounds of true alternative rock (I qualify this as “true,” considering the so-called “alternative rock” bands now being sold via mainstream media that are, some consciously and some not, merely copies of a copy).
Do yourself a favor and check out some of the real on The Grand Theatre Volume One.