Forgiving the aggressively stupid state pride anthem “A State of Texas,” which contains enough slack-jawed hillbilly sloganeering to make “Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue (The Angry American)” sound damn near poetic, The Grand Theatre Volume One shows that Old 97’s do have quite a lot to be proud of. It’s not consistently great (Old 97’s albums, even the best ones, rarely are), but it’s the band’s strongest bid to break their mid-career slump since ditching alt-country for power-pop with 2001’s Satellite Rides.
It’s no accident that the songs collected on The Grand Theatre were honed with a week of live performances in Dallas, TX before being recorded in the band’s native Austin: The material here hits hard and fast, the first two tracks in particular recalling the furious cow-punk shred of their late-‘90s output. Sometimes the 97’s try a bit too hard to sell their reckless-as-ever pose: Hearing a refrain like “Every night is Friday night” from a bunch of guys entering their 40s is more aggravating than energizing, but uptempo tracks with less obvious lyrics (“The Grand Theatre,” “The Magician”) are perfectly respectable entries in the band’s canon.
What’s more interesting to hear is how well The Grand Theatre plays out once Old 97’s trades obvious crowd-pleasers for more sophisticated fare. The chugging Johnny Cash pastiche of “You Were Born to Be in Battle” and the solemn “Let the Whiskey Take the Reins” are two of the best straight-ahead country songs the band has recorded; they’d be welcome highlights at any point in their career, but following the band’s botched attempt at an FM-rock crossover, they’re especially appreciated signs that Old 97’s have more in mind than being the next Counting Crows.
That makes it all the more disappointing when The Grand Theatre‘s second half devolves into mawkish balladeering (though tucked between two of the album’s worst tracks is an unexpected gem, a fuzzy Strokes/Stones hybrid called “Please Hold on While the Train Is Moving”). Since Old 97’s still owe us another batch of songs with The Grand Theatre: Volume Two (due out next year), any sings of strain raise the question of whether it was a wise move to stretch the best material out over two albums. Taken on its own merits, though, Volume One is mostly a success, and it’s great to hear the alt-country vets sounding more alternative and more country than they have in years.