Essential New Music: Old 97’s “Graveyard Whistling”

The first decade of this century found the Old 97’s getting a little complacent. It’s not that competent efforts like Drag It Up and Blame It On Gravity were a stain on the band’s record, but they nevertheless seemed light-years away from Too Far To Care, a time when Rhett Miller was threatening to get drunk and burn the nightclub down (“Niteclub”). That all changed with 2014’s Most Messed Up, which heard the band getting its mojo back and, more critically, Miller reclaiming the lyrical irreverence that characterized his earlier work. Any doubts that the Old 97’s could sustain this creative resurgence are summarily dismissed with Graveyard Whistling.

“He makes wine from water, but I just bought you a beer,” Miller sings on the rollicking, honky-tonk “Jesus Loves You,” a song packed with such an embarrassment of lyrical gems that you can’t help grinning like an idiot as it unfolds. The good-natured blasphemy continues on “Good With God,” the album’s first single (featuring alt-country wailer Brandi Carlile), wherein Miller imagines God as a woman (“I wonder how she feels about me?/I guess we’ll have to wait and see”). As with all the best Old 97’s music, ornery women (“She Hates Everybody”) and whiskey (“Irish Whiskey Pretty Girls,” “Drinkin’ Song”) figure prominently as the band careens from ballads to barn burners with Ken Bethea’s surf guitar and the Hammond/Peeples’ rhythm locomotive in full effect. Thankfully, for the Old 97’s, last call is still nowhere in sight.

—Matt Ryan