Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Old 97's

  • Hitchhike to Rhome [Big Iron, 1994] Choice Cuts
  • Wreck Your Life [Bloodshot, 1995] B+
  • Too Far to Care [Elektra, 1997] B+
  • Fight Songs [Elektra, 1999] A
  • Satellite Rides [Elektra, 2001] A
  • Drag It Up [New West, 2004] ***
  • Alive & Wired [New West, 2005] **
  • Blame It on Gravity [New West, 2008] A-
  • Mimeograph [New West EP, 2010] B+
  • The Grand Theatre Volume One [New West, 2010] A-
  • The Grand Theatre: Volume Two [New West, 2011] *
  • Most Messed Up [ATO, 2014] A
  • Graveyard Whistling [ATO, 2017] **

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Hitchhike to Rhome [Big Iron, 1994]
"St. Ignatius" Choice Cuts

Wreck Your Life [Bloodshot, 1995]
Dallas boys don't come to country naturally, not Dallas boys honest enough to open: "This is the story of Victoria Lee/She started off on Percodan and ended up with me/She lived in Berkeley till the earthquake shook her loose/She lives in Texas now where nothing ever moves." So "You Belong to My Heart" and "My Sweet Blue-Eyed Darlin'" fall as flat as their titles, and "W-I-F-E" says more about their own wimmin problems than about those of the ethos they poach so pseudosatirically. But in the back of a Bel Air with a mouthful of some girl's hair, staring at the dressing room walls blaming King Reagan for their wimmin problems, they're an uncommonly pungent bunch of alt-rockers with a sound they'll beef up yet. B+

Too Far to Care [Elektra, 1997]
They get depressed a lot, actually, so what say we lump them in with the new literalism, more Ass Ponys than Uncle Tupelo. Even if Rhett Miller really thinks love always turns out as bad as it does here--hell, even if he thinks third-rate romance is just a metaphor for the musician's lot--I still give him credit for keeping his eyes open. Convincer: "Barrier Reef," which renders the high hopes and depressing mechanics of a critical one-night stand in equally quick and devastating strokes. B+

Fight Songs [Elektra, 1999]
Now alt-country only by historical association, Rhett Miller Associates deliver what the No Depression crowd always wanted: a jangle-rock album worthy of the Byrds themselves. Miller's no McGuinn. But his conversational ache sure beats McGuire, the perfect medium for unfaltering songcraft that ambles from Crazy Horse to Poco without ever turning fussy or eclectic, and in addition his guitarist likes Lynyrd Skynyrd. The whole doesn't present itself as a concept album only because losing at love is a pop metatheme. Note, however, that for both touring post­alt-rockers and the postcollegians who love them, the geographical distance these lyrics can't stay away from is now a basic coordinate of romance- a love-wrecker, a pain in the heart, a way out. If you wanted to get fancy about it, and I do, you could then blame this emotional trap on the same untrammeled capitalism that turns every young job seeker into a freelance contractor and every aspiring artist into a media pro. So keep up the good fight songs, Old 97's. We'll lick this social problem yet. A

Satellite Rides [Elektra, 2001]
See: You May Think It's Stupid, Rhett Miller Thinks It's Art. A

Drag It Up [New West, 2004]
The new kids have Rhett feeling down ("Moonlight," "The New Kid," "Bloomingtown"). ***

Alive & Wired [New West, 2005]
Their rough and rowdy ways--two CDs worth ("Time Bomb," "Barrier Reef"). **

Blame It on Gravity [New West, 2008]
After a lovely opener about a couple I hope don't crash that VW Bug come two devastatingly subtle breakup songs that make me fear for Rhett Miller's personal happiness: one about tears like pearls obeying what is only natural law, one about doing the underlying rumba into the warm Caribbean sea. The band songs are only slightly less subtle. In one they rob a bank and take Route 1 north because they've got nothing but time. In the other, Miller's in more of a rush: "I will grow impatient for your love but you will not recognize/How I might die inside unless I ride." What does it all mean? Only one thing's certain--his songwriting. A-

Mimeograph [New West EP, 2010]
Well after you realize they have no business covering "Rocks Off" because they're not the Rolling Stones, "Rocks Off" continues to rock. Then there's a Fratellis song about fandom rescued from Britfan oblivion, an early R.E.M. song with every word enunciated by lit guy Rhett Miller, and David Bowie's greatest song with the possible exception of "TVC-15" (which, really now, isn't the Old 97's' kind of thing). A cover band? Why not? B+

The Grand Theatre Volume One [New West, 2010]
The punk-come-lately intensity of Rhett Miller's first three songs is so far from their silly old alt-country pigeonhole that when second songwriter Murry Hammond moseys to the mic to deliver the Marty-Robbins-come-even-later "You Were Born to Be in Battle" they could be a separate-and-unequal band. After that, however, Miller pipes down without giving up. He credits "Champaign, Illinois" to Bob Dylan for the excellent reason that it (thoroughly) rewrites "Desolation Row," and if Uncle Bob really wants to shake things up some night he should master the lyric, which at this point in history is more apropos than the original. Soon Hammond's "You Smoke Too Much" is fitting right in. As together as can be expected, and as Miller requests with a hint of desperation, "Please Hold On While the Train Is Moving." A-

The Grand Theatre: Volume Two [New West, 2011]
If you'd been doing this since 1994, wouldn't you front-load volume one? ("No Simple Machine," "Visiting Hours") *

Most Messed Up [ATO, 2014]
"I'm not crazy about songs that get self-referential," declares lead track "Longer Than You've Been Alive," which goes on at impressive length about the most self-referential of all rock and roll topics, Life On The Road. Only here's the thing--it may not be the best such song, but I haven't thought of a better one. And it's also a Theme Statement, because without gauchely claiming Concept, the whole record is about Life On The Road. The pretty-boy is off Rhett Miller's voice on their most raucous studio album, which for someone in his mid forties is a concept flirting with a necessity. "We got our share of lovin' in our past/Although we were all lookin' for someone who'd last," declares the aforementioned lead track, whereupon ensue a whole bunch of songs about Lovin' On The Road, all top-drawer Rhett Miller--funny, hooky, raunchy, unpredictable, bristling with colloquial turns. How self-referential they are I have no idea. What I do know is that they fit right in on a rock album this raucous. And it is my pleasure to report that the last time I saw them live they closed with "Career Opportunities." A

Graveyard Whistling [ATO, 2017]
Stretches Rhett Miller's skill set most impressively when he takes the name of the Lord in vain ("Good With God," "Jesus Loves You") **

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