Before they began to incorporate some slick pop elements into their ramshackle brand of roadhouse rock, Old 97’s were one of the bands at the forefront of the alt-country movement. Some of the finest moments of that phase of their career are collected on Wreck Your Life and Then Some: The Complete Bloodshot Recordings, a compilation of the quartet’s output for the label. Their sophomore album, 1995’s Wreck Your Life, is included here in its original version and sequencing, supplemented by the material from Early Tracks, which compiled some 7” singles and other rarities from the same era.
For the band’s die-hard fans, there isn’t much to be gained from this new repackaging. But the set is certainly valuable as an introduction to the band’s formative years for those who discovered Old 97’s after frontman Rhett Miller started to release his solo pop records (which, it’s worth noting, are pretty great in their own right) and, moreover, as a reason to revisit a terrific piece of alt-country from well before that scene had dug itself into an artistic rut.
Perhaps what’s most striking about the songs on Wreck Your Life, listening to them nearly 15 years on, is their ragged, go-for-broke spirit: “You Belong to My Heart” sounds like a ‘50s pop song as reinterpreted by a sweaty bar band, while “Dressing Room Walls” and “Doreen” subvert traditional country conventions with real aplomb and attention to song structure. The recklessness of these songs could never have predicted how safe and boring alt-country would end up just a few years later. Old 97’s have never earned the following of Wilco or Drive-By Truckers, and, hearing the riotous stone country cycle of “W-I-F-E” and the barn-burning “Ray Charles” for the first time in years, it’s damn near impossible to imagine why not. The band’s more pop-leaning efforts, especially 2001’s Satellite Rides, have demonstrated their masterful facility with a hook, but this collection serves as an immediate reminder that Old 97’s have been drawing from the best of country, rock, and pop all along.