Old 97’s: Gravity That Won’t Weigh You Down

You always have that odd moment when you’re talking about new music from the Old 97’s … let’s all let it pass okay?! “Blame It On Gravity” … the first set of fresh tunes since 2004 arrived a few weeks ago. The distance in time is significant, “Drag It Up” their last CD … with a few exceptions, kind of — how can I put this gently? — stank! Anyway, I’m happy to report the boys have bounced back in a big … and at times unexpected … way. It’s not everything I hoped for, yet it has the potential of significantly increasing the group’s fan base.

Let’s establish this in the early going, I really like this band. The 97’s play a brand of straight forward, yet extremely literate rock and roll. Lead singer, and chief song writer Rhett Miller can craft songs that can break your heart, make you laugh, make you think .. and make you drink! He’s got the swagger of a guy who knows the chicks dig him, but the insecurity of a musician who knows he’s only as good as his last song.

Rhett’s a natural storyteller, and his best songs tend to feature somewhat linear nuggets of truth … one of the too few shining moments from “Drag It Up” appear in the song “Won’t Be Home” … that’s when Rhett sings, I was born in the back seat of a Mustang/On a cold night/In a hard rain.
Jump ahead to “Blame It On Gravity” and the song “The Fool” … this time it’s, He came from Phoenix/In a borrowed VW Bug … both great scene setters, but in “Won’t Be Home” we get a compact little story. In “The Fool” we get pieces of a fuzzy plot. What the tunes share, however, is a rollicking melody that quickly drops some throw pillows in your cranium. Comfy and cool.

“Blame it on Gravity” is pretty much like that from start to finish. There isn’t a clunker in the bunch. Different styles, set different moods. They all sound great, but they don’t say a whole lot. You’ll find a bunch of great lines, in “No Baby I” there’s, The room was full of surface tension/But I was only thinking of myself. In “Dance With Me” there’s, Girl’s like you with your flip flop smiles/And Your big blue eyes on vacation. Clever, wrapped in killer chords, but ultimately not saying a whole lot.

I have a theory about this … please, try to hide your surprise! In the iPod world you’re not paying as close attention to the lyrics. The melody or the beat has to catch you. You don’t sit down with the CD booklet and read the lyrics … you don’t but I do! I say this because I actually liked “Gravity” more before I read the lyrics. I get the impression when the 97’s got together to record this album, they went with the feel of the songs, not the stories behind them.

So, is “Gravity” worth the purchase? Most certainly, yes. The Old 97’s are a great rock band. They don’t have to be perfect to move you. In the sweetest, and possibly best song on the album, “Color Of A Lonely Heart Is Blue” Murray Hammond takes over on vocals, and delivers an absolute charmer. It’s clear it’s about a relationship on the rocks, but why and how … that’s something we never get a firm grip on. But it sure is purdy!

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