Storming out of Dallas in the early 1990s, the Old 97's were one of the best bands to emerge from that decade's alt-country movement, peppering their energetic country-punk synthesis with Rhett Miller's woe-is-me lyrics, which were funnier and more literate than the genre typically allowed. Over seven years, they made a string of solid records showcasing Miller's wry songcraft, bassist Murry Hammond's dusty Texas two-step, and Ken Bethea's compact and inventive guitarwork. In the 2000s, however, they haven't sounded quite so confident. After going pop on 1999's Fight Songs, they sounded overly slick on 2001's Satellite Rides and sleepwalked through Drag It Up. The less said about Rhett Miller's abortive solo career, the better.
The memory of the band's heyday lingers on their seventh album, Blame It on Gravity, for which they returned to Dallas to record. Local producer Salim Nourallah's airy production allows them to touch on almost every sound or style they've explored in the past, sounding roughed up on the country numbers and slick on the Anglophile pop songs. The first single, "Dance With Me," recalls the flamenco flair of 1993's Wreck Your Life and sports some of Miller's most incisive imagery in years. Hammond, reliable as ever, contributes two of the best songs, the catchy "This Beautiful Thing" and the lonely, moody "Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue."
Despite its godawful album cover, Blame It on Gravity may be the best synthesis of the band's often-conflicting pop and country pursuits. They've settled into a comfortable Lone Star pop sound, as indigenous to Texas as Freddy Fender or Robert Earl Keen, yet it remains personal to the band, the culmination of their own tastes and history. Nevertheless, too often their retreads of past glories can be wearying instead of invigorating.
Miller throws some softball hooks on "No Baby I" and "She Loves the Sunset," and the chugging "Early Morning," reminiscent of 1997's Too Far To Care, changes course constantly, derailing its steam-train momentum. The closing "The One" even cribs its opening guitar fanfare from band classic "Timebomb." That's apt, since the song portrays the band as hold-up artists, robbing banks between gigs. Ultimately, the Old 97's sound like they're just stealing from themselves. — Stephen Deusner