On ‘American Primitive,’ the Old 97’s Just Want You to Enjoy Life for 41 Minutes

On their latest album, American Primitive, the Old 97’s have sandwiched songs about assessing their life choices and serial monogamy with reminders that the world is a doomed and hopeless place and that if you’ve found even a modicum of joy, then that day is a triumph. On the first track, “Falling Down,” they try to frighten you into gratitude via a caustic surf-rock apocalypse built with tremolo electric and strummed acoustic guitars, as frontman Rhett Miller sings, “You’ve got to dance like the world is falling down around you — because it is.” Then on the last track, “Estuviera Cayendo” (that’s roughly “Falling Down” in Spanish), flamenco guitarist Jeff Trapp gives the same song the Ottmar Liebert treatment by way of Ennio Morricone just to make it beautiful.

The snarky doomsaying (or in the case of “Estuviera,” doomstrumming) is a lot to live up to. Hey, these guys know they better make the 41 minutes they’re taking from your life worth it. And for the most part, they do, even if the best songs come toward the end of the track list.

After all, the Old 97’s know what they’re doing. Their debut, Hitchhike to Rhome, arrived 30 years ago — the same year Uncle Tupelo broke up and a few months before Conor Oberst formed Bright Eyes — positioning them perfectly as shaky-voiced alt-country torchbearers. With Miller’s typically clever wordplay and the right mix of tangy twang and class-A amplifier snarl, the quartet have spent the years since expanding their sound to include roots rock, rockabilly, garage, and other typically raw variations-on-a-theme on nearly two dozen long players. The through-line for the band, which has kept the same core lineup since 1992, has always been Miller’s mordant wit, which provides for the best moments on American Primitive.

On “Honeypie,” a jaunty, loping acoustic rocker with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck on mandolin, Miller gets all Sonnet 130 about his old lady who’s “young at heart” and a “wrecking ball” — “But the one thing she don’t like is when call her ‘my old lady.’” And on “This World,” a raving rockabilly hootenanny, he sings “DJ, DJ, you ain’t got no swing/None o’ what you play don’t say a thing/About how hard it is to be … this world is tryin’ to kill me” — but then he changes it up at the end: “DJ, DJ, dig into your crate/Make me want to cry or roller skate … This world is tryin’ to kill me.” He wants to feel better, and the music helps. And he even attempts to lighten things up singing, “Every day’s a masterpiece even if it crushes you” on “Masterpiece.”

But it’s not all Chicken Little. With extra jangle courtesy of Buck, “Where the Road Goes” finds Miller reflecting on how he survived a teenage suicide attempt, and how he is happy he did. “I’m so glad you decided to stick around,” he sings, amid a chime-y Wall of Sound backdrop. “Look what you found, look at all the beautiful things you found.” No matter how bleak Miller may feel, he’s ready to dance until the end of the world, and that spirit is infectious from the beginning of American Primitive to the end.


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