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The Lowdown:

Old 97's

Ken Bethea (guitar), Murry Hammond (bass/vocals), Rhett Miller (vocals/ guitar), Philip Peeples (drums)

Based In:
Dallas, Texas



Most Messed Up

Release Date:
April 29, 2014


Salim Nourallah

Previous Releases:
Hitchhike to Rhome (1994), Wreck Your Life (1995), Too Far to Care (1997), Fight Songs (1999), Satellite Rides (2001), Drag it Up (2004), Alive & Wired (2005), Blame it on Gravity (2008), The Grand Theatre, Volume One (2010), The Grande Theatre, Vol. 2 (2011), Old 97's/Waylon Jennings (2013 EP)

Americana, rock, alt country

Related Articles:

Old 97's, Most Messed Up cover art

Rating: 8 out of 10



June 3, 2014



June 2014 Featured Review

Old 97's: Most Messed Up

by Jason D. 'Diesel' Hamad


Texas’ own Old 97’s in all their “Last Picture Show”-like glory. (l-r) Ken Bethea, Rhett Miller, Philip Peeples, Murry Hammond. Photo by Eric Ryan Anderson.

Spoof country specialist, satellite radio dj, perpetual imbiber, and certifiable crazy motherfucker Mojo Nixon claims that, “There are only three kind of songs: killin' songs, fuckin' songs, and drinkin' songs.” Of course, Mojo Nixon is a shitty songwriter, so what does he know? But, if that rubric holds true, Old 97’s have written plenty of each, but it seems like their latest album Most Messed Up put them on a mission. While it lacks any murder ballads of “The Other Shoe” variety, Rhett Miller did his level best to mash the latter two categories together in as many combinations as possible, drowning the album in alcohol, weed, pills, and likely prophylactic-free fornication, all while finding as many slots into which he could shove some form of the word “fuck” as the meter would allow.

Even for a band fronted by a songwriter who has made a career out of hiding the deep dissatisfaction, hopeless malaise, outright depression, and just general fucked-upedness of his characters beneath light-feeling sonic creations, Most Messed Up is easily Old 97’s most messed up album. Absent is that signature tongue-firmly-in-cheek quirkiness that made songs like “Doreen,” “Barrier Reef,” “Murder (Or a Heart Attack),” “Victoria,” or “Over a Cliff” so damn fun—despondency be damned—but there’s something impressive about the unrelentingly raw and bleak presentation of this album. And while something may be missed by way of idiosyncrasy, there’s still enough of that up-tempo defiance that there’s no question that this could only be an Old 97’s creation.

Just the other day, I was sitting out front of The Kent Stage with Bottle Rockets frontman Brian Henneman. The band had just wrapped up their set and he was smoking a cigarette while I puffed on the vaporizer that allows me to pretend I don’t have a death wish. A couple came up to shake his hand and said that they’d come for James McMurtry but they were Bottle Rockets fans now.

A mere two decades after the band’s first release, Henneman flashed a what-took-you-so-long grin and thanked them. Returning to his cigarette, he threw out an aside, “Hell, maybe we’ll be famous by the time we’re seventy.”

It’s important for one to know where he stands, and that sort of self-deprecating, almost spiritual self-recognition seems to be popular among Americana artists, especially the alt country pioneers who came around at just the right time to believe plausibly they might really be rock stars before their genre settled into the niche market status it now holds.

Rhett Miller probably thinks Henneman’s been reading his mail, as evidenced in Most Messed Up’s leadoff track “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive,” wherein he makes a detailed account of the myriad indignities and dubious rewards of a life spent on the road:

We’ve been doin’ this longer than you’ve been alive,
Propelled by some mysterious drive.
And they still let me do it, as weird as that seems.
And I do it most nights and then again in my dreams.
Infinite hallways in giant hotels;
Dressing room looks ‘bout as good as it smells.

Cancha tell Rhett is just thrilled to be a professional musician? Photo by Eric Ryan Anderson.

Bottles of whiskey, bottles of beer;
There’s a bottle of medicine somewhere ‘round here.
We been in nightclubs and we been in bars,
Honky tonks and theaters from Memphis to Mars.
Most of our shows were a triumph of rock,
Although some nights I might have been checkin’ the clock.

Much tamer than most of Old 97’s great tracks—being a lyrically dense stack of verse upon verse that only begins to build into the hint of a rager after the fourth minute—this is a great track nonetheless. “I’m not crazy about songs that get self-referential,” Miller may claim, but by drilling down to the truth of his own existence, this bit of metatextualism marks some of his finest lyrics in twenty good years (of about twenty-five). Luckily for Rhett, it’s also perhaps the only song in the collection where the subject seems to find the redemption for which he’s looking.

Behind that signature steam-powered Old 97’s drive and some quirky, expressive guitar, “Give It Time” is a classic boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, boy and girl end up despising each other story that doesn’t fail to entertain.

“Let’s Get Drunk & Get It On” is pretty much just like it sounds, admirably combining the latter two categories in Mojo’s aforementioned triad:

Take you to a cheap hotel out on the interstate.
Well, you look so great to me.
This is the perfect place for a rendezvous.
It’s got a rotten view but the ice is free.

Let’s drink whiskey and do it all night long.
Let’s get drunk and get it on.

Taking a step back toward the self-referential, “This Is the Ballad” comes right out and announces its role on the album. While its beat seems to list back and forth like a lush putting last call in the rear view, it has something of the feel of that particular insight that can sometimes be found at the bottom of a glass downed to break up the paradoxical monotony and wonder of being:

This is the ballad of drinking rye whiskey
Distilled in a barn that burned down around it.
Find myself saying what I should be thinking:
Your figure is flawless I’m so glad I found it

This is the ballad we all must sing
While we wait to find out what tomorrow will bring,
While we wait to find out what tomorrow will bring.
I can’t wait to find out what tomorrow will bring.

Not particularly notable but entertaining nonetheless, the up-tempo love(ish) song “Wheels Off” is marked by spritely guitar played over a driving beat punctuated by acoustic strums.

A classic redemption song, “Nashville” tells the story of a luckless music tramp trying to make up for past mistakes and in addition to its guitar break is notable for its repeated inquiries as to the proper recipient of fellatio.

Yet another piece told from the perspective of a life-choice-examining guitar picker who happens to enjoy his booze, the defiance of “Wasted” falls somewhere between the quixotic conceptions of “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive” and the infinite resignation of “Nashville,” while its Kirchenesque guitar work falls squarely in the realm of dieselbilly.

I can’t think of “Guadalajara” without salivating thinking of the best hotdog at Pink’s in L.A. I have no idea what sour cream on sausage has to do with Mexico’s second-largest city any more than I know what a bikini is doing two hundred miles from el Océano Pacífico, but the wayward swimwear plays a key roll in the song, which—overtop its quirky, bouncy South-of-the-Border surf guitar action—tells the story of a chance meeting with the kind of holiday girl I never seem to run into no matter what town I’m in.

A floaty dream, “The Disconnect” examines chemical solutions to deal with the isolation of a real world that, as Miller notes, “isn’t that real anyway.”

Murray Hammond takes over lead vocals with “The Ex of All You See,” a warning from a man to his former lover’s new beau that the wheel always turns.

Taking a turn toward garage rock harshness—likely helped by the fact that the final two tracks both feature Tommy Stinson of The Replacements—“Intervention” could probably be directed at half the characters featured on this album (except Rhett himself, ‘cause he knows “none of the hard stuff; that shit kills”). Musically, it’s among the collection’s least compelling pieces, but damn if the lyrics ain’t just badass:

We’re only here ’cause we care about you
And we want you to get well.
You’re acting like a asshole and we’re sick of it, if you can’t tell.
Twenty-seven days on a dry vacation.

Yeah my friend Richard doesn’t want to go.
He says fuck y’all! Hell no!
He’s mystified why we’re so lame.
But if he wakes up dead will he feel the same?
Somebody kick him in the sack just to stop his bitching.

The album closes by burning itself down with the title track “Most Messed Up,” a song narrated by a man who proudly declares, “I am the most messed up motherfucker in this town!” and demonstrating the kind of country punk that would do Jason Ringenberg or Tommy Womack proud.

Yeah, boys, take a load off and put those boots up. You got a good one here. Photo by Eric Ryan Anderson.

In many ways, Most Messed Up is a return to form, regaining the high, consistent quality of The Grand Theatre, Volume One that was largely absent from Vol. 2. Although “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive” is by far the lyrical standout, nearly all of the songs are worthy of inclusion on my oft-listened-to Old 97’s best of playlist. Miller’s characters are as dark as ever, but this album departs in that he makes far less of an effort to bury that fact within the deceptive tissue paper cushioning of upbeat music and whimsical lyrics. The songs are sufficiently fast-of-pace to satisfy those used to the Old 97’s past work, but no effort is made to hide the psychic wounds carried by each of the characters in turn. The surprise is not—as in the past—discovering just how twisted a song actually is, but that their corrupted nature is right at the forefront where Miller can no longer play coy with his listeners. Its rubbed raw and bloody nature is far from the form that has caused so many to become devotees in years past, but Most Messed Up is a must-hear album that marks a reinvention for Old 97’s and proves that they’ll still be on top of the alt country world long after the next generation of before-you-were-borners discovers them.



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