CD Review of Hit by a Train: The Best of the Old 97’s by Old 97’s
Old 97’s: Hit by a Train: The Best of the Old 97’s
Label
Rhino Records
Old 97’s:
Hit by a Train:
The Best of the Old 97’s

Reviewed by Red Rocker

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A
long overdue career collection from Dallas’ countrified rockabilly quartet Old 97’s arrives just as their future as a band is most in question. Lead singer-songwriter extraordinaire Rhett Miller has his solo career in high gear after delivering The Believer earlier this year, a stellar sophomore effort that fully legitimatized his post-97’s place in the alt-country class. Now the tricky part becomes, what about the band? The four members of Old 97’s have always been there, no exits, no reunions, no substitutes. They all enjoy a middle-class (or even upper middle-class) existence, so what little income has been derived from the relatively unknown band over fifteen years has been, by and large, supplemental. Most will say that all’s well within the band. In fact, Miller has long boasted the real beauty of the 97’s for him is the ability to come and go as he pleases, knowing full well the other three aren’t out shopping for lead singers.

Hit by a Train is, unfortunately, an incomplete collection, as it gathers the early stuff on Bloodshot Records through the glory years on Elektra, but strangely omits the latest, 2004’s Drag It Up (which dropped on New West Records). Stacked in essentially chronological order, the new old album opens with “Stoned,” all gritty and county fair-sounding from their independent days. There is very little difference between their musical styling in 1993 and that of the major label debut three years later. “Doreen” and “Victoria,” which hail from 1996’s Wreck Your Life, are each worthy admissions to the best-of dance. “True punk mettle fearlessly cross-bred with deep country soul” is how one critic summed up the 97’s at this point. All four songs that open the disc are twangy barroom romps, perfectly displaying the central sound that brought these guys together.

It is the Elektra material from 1997’s Too Far to Care through 2001’s Satellite Rides that makes this collection so hard to put down, not to mention a great opportunity for any 97’s novice to be baptized. “Timebomb” just rips! “I got a time bomb in my mind, Mom. I hear it ticking but I don’t know why / I call the police, but they don’t like me, I hear them whisper when I’m walking by,” Miller confesses, as Ken Bethea’s hyper-as-hell Stratocaster shreds a ragged riff and the double-time rhythm section roars. “Jagged” is another high water mark. From 1999’s Fight Songs, this one pulls the horns in a bit and shows the band’s ability to shuffle or even waltz as well as they rock. Remember, country is their core, and although at times they seem intent on giving Social Distortion a run for their money, these songs are basically sappy poems from Miller’s cocktail napkin.

The Marty Robbins classic “El Paso” is the only non-original 97’s entry. (Note: any of you “King of the Hill” junkies should recognize this one) The beautifully painful acoustic ballad “Question” was a must here. “Someday somebody’s gonna ask you a question that you should say ‘yes’ to once in your life” is the kind of lyric that Miller has gotten better and better at through the years. In fact, he loved “Question” so much that he included it on his last solo record. The collection closes with a pair of live cuts, the fan favorite “Barrier Reef” and a blistering version of “Nineteen.” It’s here that we find Old 97’s in their natural habitat - the stage. These guys were meant to perform live, I tell you, and to see them sweat it out in person is the only thing better than blasting 18 of their best songs back-to-back-to-back.

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