Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Putting Up a Good Fight

Country-rock band Old 97's may be more than you bargained for.

By Chris Herrington

NOVEMBER 8, 1999:  Rock-and-roll, 1999: The year of the white guy. Okay, so maybe that's not a fashionable theme, but consider the evidence. Exhibit A: Randy Newman's Bad Love. The ace songwriter's best album in a quarter-century, it serves as a veritable case study of white-male power in all its late capitalist ugliness. On the flip side of Newman's old-school fat cat is Exhibit B: Eminem, the sublimely skilled white rapper from Detroit whose debut, The Slim Shady LP, is the only record released this year with the humor, smarts, and chutzpah to rival Newman's. Conjuring Bart Simpson as grown-up 'hood rat, Slim Shady speaks for an emerging generation of underclass, under-educated white guys. For all of his surreal storytelling, he comments on poverty more directly than any other current rapper, and speaks truth to power by asking, "How the fuck can I be white? I don't even exist."

And then there's Exhibit C: Old 97's. The post-collegiate characters who narrate Fight Songs, the fourth and best album from this Dallas-based country-rock band, have nothing in common with the dead-end kid Slim Shady -- except race, gender, and age. Children of privilege, they're in line for the spoils of patriarchy that Newman's rich old lechers breathe like air, but as liberated Nineties guys, they want nothing to do with that kind of power. To borrow a line from the Replacements, they'll inherit the earth, but they don't want it.

Less alternative country than preppie Neil Young (though maybe that's the same thing), with Fight Songs Old 97's have delivered the finest rootsy jangle pop record in recent memory, if not since early R.E.M. or the Byrds. With just enough Ragged Glory crunch and Grievous Angel twang to keep things from sounding too samey, Fight Songs essays how true love travels on a gravel road even for liberal arts grads on the information superhighway.

Cribbing lyrics from short-story master Raymond Carver on the lovesick "What We Talk About" or tweaking country music past on the hung-over "Crash on the Barrelhead," Old 97's singer-songwriter Rhett Miller can't quite match Newman or Eminem in terms of raw wit or intellectual depth, but his song-writing is as clever and literate as college tuition money can buy these days. But what ultimately makes Fight Songs something more than merely a finely crafted record is the undercurrent of distance -- emotional for sure, but also literally geographic -- that haunts this collection of twisty, prickly love songs. What initially seems like a subtle motif turns out to be the grand theme of a record that isn't called "Fight Songs" for no reason.

What Fight Songs documents is a historically and culturally specific brand of post-collegiate rootlessness -- a sense of economic and romantic transiency that infects twentysomethings in a culture where fleeting job stability and frequent movement are increasingly the norm. Or, in more mundane terms, you might call Fight Songs a record about breaking up with your college girlfriend and not finding a job.

"I couldn't drink enough to make this make sense, but I think I'm gonna give it a try," Miller howls on the opening "Jagged." "There's no settling down," he explains, "there's only driving downstate." The long-distance-relationship-blues pop up again and again. On "Lonely Holiday" Miller ruefully sings, "I was alone, you were away/In Fayetteville or in another state/There's so many towns I hate." The Everly Brothers-style closer "Valentine" takes a more bemused tone in surveying the emotional wreckage of a relationship pulled apart by people on the move. The poppy "Oppenheimer" and loopy "Indefinitely" are even cautiously optimistic about affairs of the heart, with the latter finding Miller announcing to his newfound object of affection, "Time is gonna tell your little secrets to me/There's a frightened girl inside of you and I'm gonna set her free."

But still, nothing on Fight Songs seems built to last. The clincher is the anthemic "Nineteen," a would-be hit that comes three-fourths of the way through the album but flashes back to an earlier time. If every other song confronts the romantic realities of early adulthood, "Nineteen" documents first-love excitement, before disillusionment sets in. "I was only nineteen/Finished up with high school/Headed to a state school/Wandered into you," Miller explains, before exclaiming, "Big screen/Kissing in a movie/God, you moved me around." On "Nineteen" happiness is defined as lying in bed all day with your girlfriend, but truer to the tone on the rest of the album is the updated scenario on "Alone So Far," where protagonist and companion exhaust all conversation and "sleep like spoons and forget whom we are."

These handsome guys and their sleek rock/country/folk musical hybrid look and sound the part, but listen closely and they may give fans of yuppie soul music more than they've bargained for.

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