Alive and Wired
I remember thinking the Old 97's were going to be my new favorite band, not in a speculative way, but in a purely deterministic manner, when I saw the video for their still-excellent-song-to-me "House that Used to Be" with great lines like
don't want to wind up in the graveyard
another number on the scorecard
they're gonna wrap you up in corn silk
and mess around like you were spilt milk
better take another Quaalude
and get yourself corkscrewed
over the perfect blend of rave-up Johnny Marr rambles and Bottle Rockets down home-ness, with the working class hero sincerity of The Smithereens. It never really took though. Every Old 97's album I would get would just not quite be there for me. There would be something - too poppy, to self-conscious, too "punky" something that would keep me from latching proteins to it and bringing it into the greater organism. I figured it must be a problem with me, since that even though I openly embraced the Alt.Country lifestyle, the Uncle Tupleo albums before Anodyne really have never resonated with me either. But I tried. Then Rhett Miller did his solo album with his Details cover boy-meets-Gus van Sant street hustler looks on the cover and mugging from all directions. I know one shouldn't judge a book or album by its cover, but I did, and I couldn't get past it. Still though, it nagged at me. There is some pheromone coming off this band that attracts me.
Finally New West has scratched that little itch with its double live Alive and Wired, capturing the Old 97's in their punchy glory over two nights in Austin. I'd heard that they were great live, but every fan says that. This time, they were right. They have the perfect balance between tight and sloppy that makes the Rolling Stones' studio work so good. Despite not having the one song I really wanted, mentioned above, on the record, from the dedication to the front row starting out "Melt Show", the runaway train beat, and the lonesome whistle harmonies and slightly drunken, slightly slurred delivery by Miller. it shows the promise of Alt.Country at its best - like in the heyday of the alternative rock era, you felt the music was urgent, passionate and most importantly, fun to see. In fact, it almost seems like had the Old 97's happened a decade earlier, where they could have run alongside the BoDeans and Red Riders and True Believers et al, they would have been legendary. Great numbers like "The New Kid" and 'King of All of The world" and 'Won't Be Home" amp up the adolescent love-fire seed from Big Star and blooms it into a stinking, desperate flower, taking the aching teen-pathos of emo and showing how to really do it. Its not about underscoring ones drama, its about italicising it, if that makes any sense. Take a chorus like
I was born in the backseat of a Mustang
On a cold night in a hard rain
And the very first song that the radio sang was
'I won't be home no more'
Yes it's corny as fuck, but gloriously, just like love is when you are 19, when you identity is externalized and nurtured and on fire. Its great stuff. Makes me wanna do that combination pogo/square dance kinda thing we used to do to Dash Rip Rock and the reunion version of The Basters when they would wash through town.
Amongst the rave-ups are great tear jerkers like "Designs on You" and especially "Big Brown Eyes" and countless others. And while Rhett Miller is not quite the class clown that Brian Henneman of the Bottle Rockets, or the guy from the Gourds are, there are plenty of clever funny songs like the youth Haggard rehash of "Stoned" and the gloriously bad puns of "Barrier Reef." It shows the band not as boutique stylists of cornbread music, or even as the pop submariners that they eventually became on record, but as a great vital live outfit. Not just a bar band, but something snaky and outstanding enough to wrap your heart around and sing runkenly along with during the songs you know. Its makes me wish I'd paid loser attention and seen them back in the day. I still maintain that the bulk of their recorded output suffers from too much indulgence, too much stylistic exploration, too much playing against their strengths, but I'm gonna have to borrow the cd's from someone and re-examine my position based on this great collection of great songs by a great band in great form.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com