Tom Morello said in one of his “Nightwatchmen” YouTube Q&As that he left Epic Records for New West because New West is more open to artists trying newer and edgier things, rather than a larger label whose big conglomerate boss, Sony, always wants to squeeze out as much commercial appeal as possible from every project. For his acoustic folk saga that focuses primarily on his political agenda, Epic wasn’t too keen on the guitarist straying from his hard-rockin’, “Bulls on Parade” roots.
I bring this up because it explains the noticeable and drastic transition between Old 97’s pop-sound in the early ’00s and the country-bluegrass fans adored in the mid-nineties. If you check the fine print on 2004’s Drag It Up, you’ll see a different record label is attached to the Texas band than on their three previous albums: New West.
I promise this point isn’t meant as propaganda for New West by any means, but rather as a reflection on how a band’s career is affected so heavily by big labels. Though Too Far To Care kept in the vein of the hard-rockin’, solo-busting tone the Old 97’s’ are (and will hopefully always be) known for, the band’s music took a drastic turn for the commercial worst with its pop-rock sound on their following two records, so much that it makes one look back and wonder if Wilco would have had the spotlight stolen from them if Elektra didn’t turn them into a country version of Guster.
The spotlight’s starting to shine back on this quartet, though, with groups such as My Morning Jacket and Dawes raising awareness that Jeff Tweedy isn’t the only alt-country songwriting talent on the market. October’s Grand Theatre Volume 1 showed the Old 97’s blasting some of the best alt-country of their career (and they’ve had one hell of a career: nine studio albums and three EPs over 17 years), and Volume 2 continues in that same respect. You’ll be treated once again to Rhett Miller and bassist Murry Hammond trading vocals throughout, and Ken Bethea will bust a ton more solos with the twang of a veteran. (Check out YouTube footage of some of their live stuff to see Bethea rip some sick jams.) For fans who gave up on these guys ten years ago, give them a second (or possibly third) chance with either of these volumes. The Old 97’s are looking reborn.