I love me some Old 97’s. I remember hearing their album Too Far To Care at a CD Warehouse when I was in college (man, do I love me some CD Warehouse! Used CDs, and you could find all sorts of crazy stuff that people would bring in and trade. And also fifty copies of any given Backstreet Boys album. That wasn’t so great, but it was funny), and I was just hooked. They always sounded like they were just on the verge of falling apart completely; the skittering drums, the half-shouted vocals, the blistering guitar work…these guys made having an emotional breakdown sound like fun.
Their albums since then have been, for me at least, a series of diminishing returns. Sure, Fight Songs, Satellite Rides, and Drag It Up all had some solid tunes and the good generally outweighed the bad, but each successive album smoothed away the rough edges, and Blame It On The Gravity just went for straight power pop with no rough edges (and missed the mark considerably, if you ask me).
Then I see Mimeograph, a four-song EP featuring covers of classic rock songs. The very idea sounds winning and engaging, and I’m thinking maybe they used this to cut loose and really have fun. But I guess the title (a reference to an old copy machine-type thing, for those of you who’re, y’know, young and don’t know how to use the internet to find things out) should have been a dead giveaway: these are raucous alt-country versions of classic rock songs, these are almost exact duplicates of classic rock songs performed with expertise and precision by a band that used to be much more fun.
It starts out with a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Rocks Off,” the four-on-the-floor rocker that kicked off Exile on Main Street. And…well, it sounds exactly the same, except Rhett Miller is singing. They stay so true to the original, they even keep the same vocal effects in the bridge. It’s sad. This could have been so much better; they could have reinterpreted it into something new rather than an exact duplicate of the original.
It doesn’t get any better from there. Sure, these four tracks are played well, and the band clearly enjoys the music they are paying homage to, and they are definitely better musicians than they were in the Too Far To Care days, but I really do feel this was a missed opportunity to recapture some of the energy and vitality of their earlier albums. Their cover of the Fratellis’ (the newest song here) “For the Girl” doesn’t add anything new, nor do their covers of REM’s “Driver 8” or David Bowie’s “5 Years.”
Ultimately, Mimeograph is something of a disappointment. I guess had I not gone in with expectations about what this could have been, I would have enjoyed it: after all, these covers are competently done and well-played, even if the arrangements are too safe and predictable. Maybe next time, we’ll get some of the energy and rough edges of their early stuff.