While the Old 97's have as recognizable a sound as anyone who came out of the '90s alt-country scene, you can't accuse them of repeating themselves. On 2014's Most Messed Up, their tenth studio album, the band sounded proudly rowdy and plenty scrappy, ready to make trouble and have a good time doing it. Three years later, 2017's Graveyard Whistling finds them delivering a more polished product, coupled with a firm sense of consequence about the bad results of the pursuit of good times. Vance Powell's production boasts more clarity, depth, and drama than Most Messed Up, though he hasn't sapped the group's fiery attack, and while most of the tracks here feature more cautious tempos, the trademark twang and crunch of Ken Bethea's guitar are as powerful as ever, and the hard-edged shuffle of bassist Murry Hammond and drummer Philip Peeples has only grown more powerful with time. There's a dark, spooky undertow to numbers like "I Don't Wanna Die in This Town" and "Good with God" (the latter featuring guest vocals from Brandi Carlile), and even upbeat numbers like "She Hates Everybody" and "Nobody" have a rueful tone that confirms these guys have been around long enough to know how elusive good times can be. Graveyard Whistling has a strong sense of drama, but it's far from a bum trip; the Old 97's still know how to rev up when they feel like it on numbers like "Drinkin' Song" (which could be an outtake from Most Messed Up), and Rhett Miller's skills as a vocalist and lyricist are as strong as ever, giving this music the sort of heart and soul that the band has never failed to deliver. The Old 97's still sound engaged, energetic, and as committed as ever 23 years after they released their debut, and Graveyard Whistling is evidence they're not short on fresh ideas either.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming