Old 97s - Most Messed Up
Record Label: ATO
Release Date: April 29, 2014
After bouncing between record labels for the better part of the last decade, Old 97s are back in the saddle in a big way. Most Messed Up, their debut for ATO Records, is the band’s most freewheeling, ragged and defiant record of their career. Though it’s not their best, it’s a compelling work that frequently shows why the band has been beloved for the last three decades.
Opening salvo “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive,” commences languidly but rapidly shifts into a rustling, top-down, beer-swilling bar-room rocker. The brilliance of “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive” though is not only the band’s deft execution, but rather Miller’s life-affirming message about how much fun he’s had being the frontman for Old 97s. Clocking in at nearly six minutes, it is in essence everything that’s great about Austin’s finest trio: candid lyrics, sweat-drenched swagger and a vibrancy that’s unmatched by anyone else in alt-country. Though the rest of the record fails to match “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive,” it isn’t exactly a dud either.
Miller tackles both self-loathing and his need for humility on the rousing “Nashville” before revisiting the defiance in the lusty cut “Wasted.” “Give it Time” comes out swinging and barrels through like a bull in a china shop. Ditto to the boozy singalong “Let’s Get Drunk & Get It On.” Miller is not intent on winning any charm awards and proves exactly that on the punchy kiss-off “This is the Ballad.” And maybe that’s the point. The roots of Old 97s are brash, brawny, in-your-face drinking songs and the quartet does it about as well as anyone. Even on lesser cuts like “Wheels Off,” they still deliver in a way their contemporaries can only dream about.
But just past the halfway mark, the disc more or less crumbles. “Guadalajara” paints a detailed portrait of a sex-filled trip to Mexico but the song’s lasting impact is vacant. Ditto for the mildly boring “The Disconnect” and the redundant “Ex Of All You See.” It isn’t until penultimate cut “Intervention,” that the quartet returns to the singalong stock they’ve so expertly mastered. And just in case you haven’t had your fill of Miller’s profane, self-deprecating confessionals, he lets it all go on the titular closer, in which he quips, “I am the most messed up mother$#@%er in this town.”
Plenty will champion Old 97s for returning to their scruffy rock roots but at what point is a dozen rockers too much? Anyone who has listened to both Miller’s solo career or Old 97s back catalog knows full well that he can pen a winning ballad when he wants to. Was one downtempo cut too much to ask for? Top-heavy and lopsided affairs like this often ring hollow on repeated listens. Moreover, an album laced with profanity and crass behavior might charm the likes of frat-boys and extended adolescents, but should Miller, in his early 40s really be championing such behavior? Granted, that’s been Old 97s MO for the last two decades and it’s what keeps them such a draw, but let’s face it, sophomoric fraternity behavior is fine for your 20s, but Old 97s are better than this and they know it. Maybe that argument is too moralistic for those that crave rock n’ roll’s buffed up bravado, but at what point will Old 97s grow up? Are they going to release an entire catalog of lecherous tales framed by booze hounds and low-lifes? In the end, those who soak up the sex-addled, beer-swilling rockstar lifestyle will find plenty of kinship with Most Messed Up, but don’t for a second call it their best work though, it’s far too narrow to be given that glory.
Your facts need some checking -- they are not a trio, and they are from Dallas, not Austin. While the scope is narrow, this CD includes some of the best tunes the Old 97's have ground out. Besides, repeatedly decrying the booze-loser-sex themes sounds kinda hollow when being reviewed on a self-acclaimed "punk" music website. But at least you reviewed MMU -- do yourself a favor ad see them live on this tour -- they are at the top of their game.