Old 97’s – Drag It Up
New West Records (2004)
By Adam Lawrence
What a difference three years make.
We last heard from the Old 97’s in 2001, when the Kinks-inspired Satellite Rides hit shelves. Most saw it as a solid record, but it was a pronounced step further from the cow-punk leanings that fueled their first three albums. Fans seemed willing to let the band move in a more radio friendly direction as long as the songs were still great, and it was the band’s solid songwriting that ultimately saved both Rides and its predecessor, Fight Songs, from the cutout bin.
A year later, frontman and main songwriter Rhett Miller released a solo album to mixed reviews, dashing Elektra Records’ hopes that he’d become the next John Mayer. Rumors abounded that the band had split up due to familial responsibilities. Fueling the gossip was the fact that Elektra dropped the Old 97’s soon after Rides’ release but kept Miller under contract.
Three years later, the Old 97’s have returned from hiatus after every band member had either gotten married or produced offspring.
Why all this back-story? It’s a matter of simple ethics. It’s my editorial duty to let you know, dear reader, that I have an Old 97’s sticker on the back of my truck, that I frequent the Old 97’s SuperFan Message Board, and that I once saw the band twice in one day. I’d probably give the band a good review if they all came over to my house and punched me in the face.
Drag It Up is the worst album the Old 97’s have ever made. There…I said it.
It can be extremely difficult for a SuperFan to admit his favorite band has stumbled. When initial copies of the album hit the file transfer sites, reaction was not good. I sat back and simply waited for the record’s release, confident the opening track, “Won’t Be Home,” would be indicative of the band’s return to their roots – the driving, twangy guitar sound of old. Surely these naysayers were missing the slick major-label production of the last couple of albums. Perhaps there wasn’t a “hit single” for people to latch onto.
Once I had the album in the player, I couldn’t hide from the fact that Drag It Up is ultimately a disappointing record. Gone are the carefree guitar licks, the clever Westerbergian double-entendres, and the risk-taking of their previous efforts. Drag It Up is being touted as a return to the past, but 2004 is probably the worst time for the band to try for a retro sound. 2001’s Satellite Rides was a clear step forward, but now there’s a big chink in their armor.
It isn’t fair to say it’s a bad album. By many other bands’ standard, Drag It Up would be a triumph. There are some very good songs, particularly the live staples “Won’t Be Home” and “In The Satellite Rides A Star.” Also notable are new songs “The New Kid” and “Smokers,” but even those aren’t up to the level we expect from these four guys from Texas.
Drag It Up feels like a b-sides and rarities album. Rarely do those measure up to the strength of a proper album. Many of the songs are leftovers from side projects, or live songs that never found a home. Too many of the songs seem like the rest of the band is just backing up Rhett Miller’s crooning. For years, the band presented themselves as a four person unit built only for rocking, each member necessary for the success of the mission. Now the slower songs, well, drag and mostly misfire. A slight exception is lead guitarist Ken Bethea’s debut behind the mike, “Coahuila,” which tries to reclaim the Texas Band label with its TexMex musings. If “Coahuila” were surrounded by stronger material, it would be a Ringo-esque novelty song. As it stands, it feels too much like filler.
Drag it Up is also an excellent example of how important track sequencing is to the success of a record. On previous albums, a slower song was infused somewhere between 4-5 fast songs, a sort of rest area on a vast highway of rock. The opposite theory has been applied here, with the album’s pulse hovering dangerously near flat line. The slower tunes, like “Moonlight,” “Borrowed Bride” and “Bloomington” just sit there. A friend once told me to never order a salad in a diner. It’s going to be disappointing and limp and it’s only on the menu because it’s “supposed to be there.” I’m afraid Drag It Up is that salad in the diner.
The argument has been made that perhaps the band was just continuing its quest for a hit single, and that explains the blandness of the record. After all, it could be said that “Question,” the Diabetes-inducing track from Satellite Rides, is the band’s most successful song. You can listen for it on Scrubs, Dawson’s Creek and Madden 2005 commercials. But the trouble with that theory is the band switched back to New West Records before the album was recorded, and that’s a far cry from the Elektra Hit Single Machine days of old.
I hate to bad mouth anything by these guys who have brought me so much joy in the three years since I first heard “Timebomb” on the perfect Too Far To Care. I’m still a SuperFan, and will probably find ways to enjoy this record, but it’s a clear stumble by a newly responsible “adult” band. – (5/10)