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.