After adopting a sort of punky, ramshackle twang on their early albums, the Old 97's hit their stride with 1997's Too Far To Care, a record that fused melodic pop music with roadhouse country-rock. That sound stuck with the band for years, but it became dilluted on later records -- dilluted by Rhett Miller's intermittent solo career, by fatherhood, by the maturity that comes with middle age. Luckily, the Old 97's returned to that sonic sweet spot with Blame It on Gravity, a battle cry of a record that boasts the same sound that made Too Far to Care an ideal pop album for people in cowboy boots. Blame It On Gravity's timing was perfect, too, arriving during the same spring as the final issue of No Depression Magazine -- which, incidentially, featured a story on the band -- and a nostalgic reissue of Whiskeytown's Stranger's Almanac. Both were bittersweet reminders that alt country's golden days had faded into twilight, making the Old 97's the torch bearers for a genre whose flame once burned brightly.
Blame It On Gravity owes much of its strength to frontman Rhett Miller, who switches between his normal voice -- a bar-band bray developed over years and years of live performances -- and a breathy croon. In the Spanish-tinged "Dance with Me" (a close cousin to Fight Songs' "What We Talk About"), he steps into the role of a foreign lover, enticing an American tourist to show him her night moves before jumping into the role of her cuckolded husband. Beneath the storyline, guitars crunch and cymbals crash courtesy of Miller's three bandmates: bassist Murry Hammond, the group's bespectacled elder statesman and a contributor to some of Gravity's finest cuts (including the Beatles-ish "My Two Feet"); drummer Philip Peeples, who plays with a rhythmic, horse-hooved stomp, and lead guitarist Ken Bethea, a flurry of guitar pedals and cowpunk riffs. Together, the Old 97's fill their seventh studio effort with a familiar mix of rock songs, mature ballads, and the shuffling midtempo numbers that fall somewhere between both camps. Of particular note are "She Loves the Sunset," a breezy '50s-styled gem with tropical island flair, and the cozy "Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue," one of Murry Hammond's most heartbreaking compositions to date. Those mellow tracks rub shoulders with the album's full-tilt rock numbers -- "Ride," "Early Morning," "The One," "The Fool" -- all of them delivered with the confidence of a band who's been there, done that, and stayed together when lesser groups would've split at the seams. No track quite approaches the breakneck pace of 1997's "Timebomb," but that's a minor quibble for a band who continues to remain fine-tuned and wholly significant after 15 years. Welcome back, boys.