On their first five albums, the Old 97's explored the different sides of their multifaceted muse. Starting out with hard-bitten rockabilly twang, the group transitioned to power pop on its 1997 major-label debut, Too Far to Care, then recycled Brit-rock references on 2001's Satellite Rides. But on Drag It Up, its first album after a three-year respite, the band sounds like the older 97's of a decade or so ago. With the edgy attitude that pervades several of these tracks, there's a sense that this Texas crew has regrouped and returned to its roots by reclaiming the seasoned, hard-bitten style that originally earned it a country punk pedigree.
If nothing else, Drag It Up is the Old 97's' most personal and introspective effort yet, with songs that drop bitter barbs in the wake of heartbreak and disappointment. The rollicking "Won't Be Home" starts the set by laying firm the band's rambling, road-worn credentials ("I was born in the backseat of a Mustang/On a cold night in a hard rain/And the very first song the radio sang/It was öI won't be home no more"). A loping but yearning "Moonlight" bows to that birthright, as vocalist Rhett Miller takes the perspective of a perpetual outsider. "People are laughing and they're having such fun/I wish it was happening to me," he sings. Echoing Hank Williams's well-trod weeper "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," it's a bleak portrait of isolation and despair that sets the tone for what's to follow. "Coahuila" follows suit ("Now you are gone and the world is an ugly place"), while on "The New Kid" Miller barely contains his contempt ("The new kid, he's got the girl, the girl I used to have").
Fortunately there's plenty of uptempo, old-fashioned honky-tonk and redneck resolve accompanying all the tears falling in their beer. Side musician Archie Thompson's barrelhouse piano playing propels the Tex-Mex textures of "Coahuila" with upbeat authenticity. Likewise, the double-time tempo of "Friends Forever," Chris Lawrence's weepy steel guitar drifting through "Blinding Sheets of Rain," and the smoky shuffle of "The New Kid" provide each with additional altcountry trappings.
To their credit, the Old 97's work their way through this season of discontent with a ferocity and drive that belies the sobriety of Drag It Up's subject matter. In fact, aside from the closer, the pensive "No Mother," there's not a shoegazer in this bunch. Disappointment has rarely sounded so inspired.