Here's To The Halcyon

old97s-group.pngBlame It on Gravity, the latest Old 97's album, is more than just another fantastic record: It's an energetic, emotionally mature fusion of everything they've ever done, from country to rock to pop, a gorgeous tapestry held together by the thread of frontman Rhett Miller's yearning lyrics. • The 97's have always been a country band at heart, and that's what they remain, but they've also never been content to be "just" a country band, which is why they've so successfully spread their reach into rock and pop. Their debut, 1994's Hitchhike to Rhome, was a raw, deeply country affair, evidenced by everything from the heartbroken shuffle of "Dancing With Tears" to the cover of Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried" and the rendition of Cindy Walker's "Miss Molly." But 1997's Too Far to Care was a crunchy country-rock record, bookended by "Timebomb" and "Four Leaf Clover." The band moved on to poppier sounds with Fight Songs (1999) and Satellite Rides (2001), letting the honky-tonk of "Crash on the Barrelhead" butt against the sunnier "Nineteen," or the bar blast of "Am I Too Late" ride comfortably next to the pop brilliance of "Rollerskate Skinny." • All of which is to say that the 97's have always had that Texas country-rock sound as the core on which they build their pop and rock; it's the hub in the center of their wheel. • But 2004's Drag It Up was a change in the band's sound, or more accurately, a change in the way they balanced their country and pop loyalties. Lead guitarist Ken Bethea — who contributed lead vocals for the first time on that album's "Coahuila" — said on the band's site that Too Far to Care was "made for big cars and air guitars," while Drag It Up was "better served by thinking and driving on Sunday afternoons in the middle of nowhere." And listening to the album, you get the feel that's something the band did a lot of when they were cooking it up. It wasn't that they decided to move away from Texas country or snappy pop; they simply said, "Why not do both?" The result was a blending of their previous sounds, something at once rawer and more advanced, opening with the more (for them) traditional beat of "Won't Be Home" but sliding through the minor howl of "Smokers" and the lonesome two-step of "Blinding Sheets of Rain" on its way to the ballad "Adelaide" and the poignant "No Mother." It was as if the band was saying: We will continue to do what we've always done, but we're going to do it differently. • That's what makes Blame It on Gravity so wonderful. It's an energetic blend of the band's dual sounds, and the twin hearts of country and pop beat through every song. The ballad "Color of a Lonely Heart is Blue" has the kind of teardrops-in-the-sawdust vibe the band has been putting out since its early days, while "Here's to the Halcyon" is a rollicking take on the up-tempo boom-chicka-boom that Old 97's do like no one else. But there's also "This Beautiful Thing" and "Ride," poppier rock numbers that would be at home on Satellite Rides or one of frontman Rhett Miller's solo efforts. There's even "She Loves the Sunset," a tropical tune so startlingly different for the band but so perfectly done — the grace note Miller pops into the line "The sky is falling / but I fell long ago" gets me every time — that it's not a wayward experiment but an example of the genre-pushing fun the band likes to have. • Even more, Blame It on Gravity is the most geographically expansive record the band's ever made. Miller's lyrics have always expressed a kind of heartbroken wanderlust, whether it's being stranded in New York while your girl is back home ("Niteclub," "Broadway") or journeying into the unknown West ("Streets of Where I'm From," "W. Tx. Teardrops"). But the new album name-checks everything from the Tappan Zee to a host of Los Angeles landmarks. In fact, it's L.A. that receives the most detailed treatment. On "Ride," Miller sings, "There is a white hot sun and a big blue sky / from the 101 to the 405." It's as if the lyrics are finally catching up to the sonic displacement that happens when the band straddles the line between Texas country and pop that seems to come right out of the SoCal sunshine. • The final track, "The One," is a kind of summation of everything the band has worked through. It's a peppy number in which Miller says he and the other guys are going to knock off a bank and drive off into the sunset, and the lyrics call out the rest of the band by name. When they finally take the money and run, Miller sings, "What's the rush, let's take the 1." Given the other references to Los Angeles highways, as well as the article in front of the highway number, it's likely that Miller's referring to the PCH, and the song's grinning demeanor and attitude of "Let's just amble up the highway" — not to mention Miller's ease about traffic congestion — would certainly fit the road. But when I hear the song, I can't help but think that Miller's also talking about Mopac. Instead of (literally) choosing one route or the other, the band has it both ways, marrying their influences and setting out on a path at once familiar and uncharted.