Old 97’s – Fight Songs

Here’s yet another album review, this one from September 2004. Apparently I spent all of graduate school listening to music and telling anyone who would listen what I thought about it.

So my most recent musical acquisition has been the Old 97’s fourth album, Fight Songs. It’s the follow-up to Too Far To Care, which is still their best record in my opinion.

The most noticeable difference between the two albums is the musical tone. Whereas Too Far To Care approached country music from a punk angle, Fight Songs takes the more traditional country-rock approach, a la Neil Young or some of Dylan’s ’70’s work. There’s still plenty of energy and twang here, but a lot of the ragged edges have been smoothed in favor of songcraft and melody.

The tradeoff works well, in this case. Rhett Miller’s lyrics and croon take centerstage, and his wordplay is as sharp as ever. Miller spent much of Too Far To Care yelping and speeding through his lyrics, attempting to keep up with the hyperactive music. On Fight Songs, he’s slowed down, giving each phrase the time and attention it deserves. He’s also toned down the vocal theatrics. Miller sings most of the songs with a croon reminiscient of Jeff Tweedy’s (from Wilco) or Elliot Smith, though more melodic than the former and less fragile than the latter.

Despite this slight stylistic shift in music and vocals, there are still plenty of rockers on the album. The lead-off tune, “Jagged,” keeps a great beat and has wicked lyrics. “Oppenheimer” sounds like something off of Rhett Miller’s solo album The Instigator in terms of the music and his delivery. “Indefinitely” has some wonderful vocal interplay between Miller and bassist Murray Hammond, and is one of the most straight-ahead pop-rock tunes on the album.

The highlight of the disc, though, is the closer “Valentine,” which features just an acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, and vocals courtesy of Murray Hammond (backed up by Miller). Lyrically, the song could be an old Willie Nelson or Merle Haggard tune, and features lines such as “Valentine the destroyer” and “Of all the many ways a man will break his heart/well there ain’t none meaner than he pulls his own apart.” It’s a witty, nakedly honest tune that leaves you wondering whether you’re supposed to smile or frown, and it closes out the album perfectly.

All in all, Fight Songs is a worthwhile effort from the Old 97’s. While it lacks Too Far To Care’s manic energy and enthusiasm, it’s still a fine album filled with wonderful tunes. Besides, Too Far To Care‘s shoes are pretty big to fill, and rather than attempting to, the Old 97’s took their music in a slightly different, and ultimately just as satisfying, direction.

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