More Loving Than Fighting

Carefully crafted songs about despair that only penetrate skin-deep.

What's most endearing about the music of the Old 97's is that it's a little

off-kilter. Although "alt-country" generally describes the Dallas

quartet's blend of twangy guitars, honky-tonk drum beats and lead singer

Rhett Miller's hiccup-accented vocals, the band has always been more

intelligent and daring than the bulk of its alt-country peers. Ever since

their Elektra debut, Too Far To Care (1997), the Old 97's have

proved resistant to classification. From the upbeat, foot-stomping opener

"Time Bomb" to the despairing (and suitably placed) 13th track, "Four Leaf

Clover," Too Far To Care was -- and still is -- a fun ride.

Fight Songs is a nice leap forward in the production department but

more than a few steps backward in terms of heartfelt emotion. In the bio for

the disc, Miller describes Fight Songs as a "deceptively sad record."

That much is true. He spends the vast majority of the record singing about

the three D's: desertion, desolation and depression. The problem lies in how

he sings about these subjects; there is darkness but no conviction.

Musically, however, this Dallas-based band has never been more in sync.

Toned down and tightened up, the Old 97's have clearly refined their sound.

Ken Bethea's guitar tone isn't as crunchy as it has been in the past, but

it's certainly as melodic. And while the rhythm section of drummer Philip

Peeples and bassist Murry Hammond doesn't sound as powerful as it did on

Too Far, they're still locked in.

Fight Songs gives us a mellower, sometimes lethargic Old 97's,

making it difficult to actively listen to all or even most of the songs

on the album. Which isn't to say that there are no good songs. Among the

stand-outs are album-opener "Jagged"

(RealAudio excerpt), upbeat waltz "Busted Afternoon"

(RealAudio excerpt) and the fatalistic "Lonely Holiday" (RealAudio excerpt).

In the end, though, Fight Songs is like a movie with a great cast and a mediocre script.