Picking Up Steam

Johnny Cash made his myth with a closet full of black and a boom-chicka train beat. Old 97's have built a modest career on the same beat, though they wear T-shirts and jeans, and stoke their train on rocket fuel, not coal.

The Texas quartet has released four discs now. The band's two major-label efforts — 1997's Too Far To Care and 1999's Fight Songs, both on Elektra — offer a smoothly sanded sound, the old piss-and-vinegar punkabilly sublimated for pop appeal. For that reason, the self-explanatory Early Tracks, released on the band's original home, Chicago's Bloodshot Records, will satisfy the nostalgic old fan and the naive new one.

Four cuts are outtakes from the 1995 sessions that produced Wreck Your Life, the band's finest disc to date and the album that propelled them from the indie ranks to semi-famous status. Lead vocalist Rhett Miller fronts two of these tracks, "Ray Charles" (RealAudio excerpt) (the title refers to the music playing during a couple's last fight) and "Por Favor" (RealAudio excerpt). Bassist Murry Hammond sings the other pair — a cover of Bobby Wayne's "Harold's Super Service" and his own "Sound of Running."

The balance of the disc comprises long out-of-print tracks previously issued on 7-inch singles. Oddly, the clear-cut standouts of these are the B-sides — Miller's rambunctious, witty "W-I-F-E" (RealAudio excerpt) and Hammond's take on the Cash nugget, "Let the Train Blow the Whistle."