Old 97's Most Messed Up

Old 97's Most Messed Up
"I am the most messed up motherfucker in this town," snarls Rhett Miller, frontman and primary songwriter for the Old 97's for almost a quarter century. It's not true, of course — there's always a little wink when he's singing — but it sure feels like it could be true as you listen to this blistering masterpiece of a rock'n'roll record. The truth is that this terrific West Texan band have rarely sounded less messed up in their career. Certainly not since their first perfect album (1997's indelible Too Far To Care) have they reached this supernatural pitch between the unrestrained energy of boozecan punk, the captivating lyricism of confessional country and the tightly constructed songwriting of British Invasion rock. At their best, and that is emphatically here on Most Messed Up, the Old 97's are the very definition of that thing we like to call alt-country: country music washed in melodic pop played by a bunch of punks.

Opening with the career summary "Longer Than You've Been Alive" — imagine a re-write of Loudon Wainwright's "Career Moves" mixed with a riff on an old SNL skit, but in the best possible way — and running through 11 more songs about sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, Most Messed Up plays like a rock opera as much as a confession. Miller's best songs here feel less about the Old 97's themselves than they do about the bands and friends he's seen pass through the rock world, get tangled up in the party scenes and stumble into drugs, booze, sex, alienation, what he terms "the disconnect." A laser-sighted observational lyricist in the Elvis Costello vein, Miller has always had a knack for the perfect one-liner, the summation that contains a heavy volume of truth. "This is the ballad of drinking rye whiskey and sleeping till 2 on a warm afternoon," he explains in one of many of those summations on Most Messed Up. "This is the ballad we all must sing as we wait to find out what tomorrow will bring."

Recorded mostly live off the floor, and full of loose, garage rock accents and playfully shambling flourishes, everything about Most Messed Up feels exquisitely messy. Though you can always trust bassist Murray Hammond and remarkable drummer Philip Peeples to hold everything together, there are times when lead guitarist Ken Bethea sounds like he's daring everyone to smash the place to shards. Guest axe-men Tommy Stinson (the Replacements) and Jon Rauhouse (Neko Case) fill out the sound, and producer Salim Nourallah comes across like a 21st century Jimmy Miller, utterly content to let the Old 97's sound like a bunch of troubadour junkies wailing through the rock'n'roll night.

"When I saw you for the first time, I thought I might be sick," Miller sings on the album standout "Give It Time." "That combination of joy and compulsion, and you were the reason for it."

Sure, the song appears to be about a girl, but is it, really? The duality of the rock'n'roll thing (to borrow a phrase) is the point of this record. That combination of joy and compulsion that might just make you sick? That's the story. That's rock'n'roll. It is, and always shall be, most messed up.

Read an interview with Miller here. (ATO)