Old 97's

Drag It Up

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"You're a bottle cap away from pushin' me too far," sings Rhett Miller on the title track of Old 97's' Drag It Up, and those who hold the band near and dear to their hearts will be overjoyed to hear that the album just gets more heartbroke after that. "Won't Be Home" is a headfirst leap into the group's trademark sound -- with a fiery blast of Ken Bethea's Telecaster and a dirty stumble from Philip Peeples' kit, the first song rips through Miller's familiar croon buoyed by bassist Murry Hammond's bright harmonies. This earthy return to form will be welcomed by those who thought their last album, Satellite Rides, and Miller's solo excursion were too slick, and if anything, it seems as though the boys took special care to keep some raw edges on the recording. On the rock numbers, Bethea's guitar frequently bursts beautifully into the red, tearing holes in the already volatile structure of the song, and on occasion the drums mischievously threaten to rattle the whole train off the tracks, but like the hero in an old kinetoscope, the whole band swoops down in the nick of time to rescue the damsel tied to the tracks. A handful of the songs are rumored to be from a Ranchero Brothers album that Miller and Hammond have been threatening to complete for years, and a few of the more straightforward countrified numbers, like "Blinding Sheets of Rain," "Bloomington," and the breathy "In the Satellite Rides a Star," are likely candidates. Ken Bethea offers his lead vocals for the first time on the slightly goofy but engaging Tex-Mex shuffle "Coahuila," which may not fit exactly in the round hole of the album, but offers a light smile amidst the bombast and heartbreak of the rest of the songs. Drag It Up culminates in a sparse and haunting ode to an Austin pal who was killed by a drunk driver, and while a "tribute" song could induce eye-rolling and saccharine gagging, Old 97's keep it simple and heartfelt, and it ends the evening perfectly. Overall, through the last decade it seems as though the band has not lost a whit of their spark, and while they may have traded in some of their youthful punk rock spastic enthusiasm, they've replaced it with a world-wise wit and a smart approach to how a rock & roll record should be made in 2004. Their sly references and sad-sack tales might sound alternately cocky or corny if the band didn't back up their words with a strong right hook and a pawn shop handkerchief to wipe away the tears, and as the album is "gettin' smaller in the rear view mirror," the first impulse is to turn the car around and drive right back through the whole thing again.

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