The Old 97’s have been touted as one of the alt-country greats for years now but, really, one of the things that has kept listeners coming back for a while now has been the band’s steadfast refusal to believe their own hype and just try to make an album which comes close to answering it. Now, at first, that modesty was cute (what music fan doesn’t like pulling for their heroes against the odds?), but it didn’t take too long for it to just get daunting; eventually, the group’s fans just started hoping they’d get over themselves and learn to take a compliment gracefully.It took almost a quarter-century but finally, finally, the band has accepted the praise and patience they’ve been so richly afforded and answered it by confidently releasing Graveyard Whistling – their eleventh album and arguably their best.
As soon as Graveyard Whistling kicks off with “I Don’t Wanna Die In This Town,” those who are already familiar with the band’s work will be able to mark the difference: the instantly more energetic delivery is surprising and can hold a listener’s attempt easily, and the softer attention to melody calls to mind the works of Soul Asylum and Grant Hart’s contributions to the Husker Du canon. Simply put, there’s an element of classic pop about the song which makes it easy to like, and it contrasts very well with the darker instrumental tones to keep more rock-focused sensibilities engaged. Those poppier tones carry over into “Bad Luck Charm” – the song which follows the opener (and sounds a little like a rewritten version of “Take It Easy” by The Eagles, although with no line as soft as “Come on baby, just say maybe”) – but don’t get so sweet that any listener has to worry about going into sugar shock. Rather, it quickly just becomes understood that the band is wearing its ambition on its sleeve and is intent on not wasting a note or phoning in a single microtone of these eleven songs.
The unspoken “all killer, no filler” promise made by Graveyard Whistling‘s first two tracks proves to endure through the entire running of the album, and really redeems/justifies the patience of fans who had just hoped the troubles that the band had been experiencing over the last few years were nothing more than the result of a slump. Particular standouts including “Good With God,” “She Hates Everybody” (which takes the punk rock “songs about girls” angle out to the ponderosa and makes lines like “She’s a lovely girl but she’s a misanthrope/ She’s sick of the world, she’s at the end of her rope/ She’s had it up to here with everyone but me” absolutely sparkle), “Drinkin’ Song” (which sounds half in the bag) and both “Turns Out I’m In Trouble” as well as “Those Were The Days” all sit comfortably atop the stacks of perfectly forgettable fair which dogged albums like Most Messed Up and Blame It On Gravity and leave a series of ear worms in them to ensure that listeners will come back regularly to battle them back.
…And it will feel good. After having gone front-to-back with Graveyard Whistling, no listener will be able to deny the album’s quality. It’s unlikely that anyone would try; fans will no that, with Graveyard Whistling, Old 97’s will have beaten their slump and emerged as strong – if not stronger – than they’ve ever been. Without meaning to overstate the point, Graveyard Whistling is a great release of a sort which many fans may have hoped for, but few (if any) ever really expected to see: it finds Old 97’s completely restored and in brilliant creative shape. [Bill Adams]
Graveyard Whistling is out now. Buy it here on Amazon.