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Dallas alt-country mainstays the Old 97s don’t mess with the formula on Graveyard Whistling

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This veteran Dallas quartet was instrumental in defining the sound of alt-country in the mid-90s, layering hard-hitting shuffles, twang-drenched guitar, and the shiny melodies of singer Rhett Miller. The Old 97s return to that nearly 25-year-old formula like a favorite shirt on their 11th album, Graveyard Whistling (ATO), dutifully toggling between cliche and wit while serving up some songs about getting ripped and suffering heartbreak—occasionally within the same track (“Irish Whiskey Pretty Girls”). At Miller’s best he embraces country songwriting conventions with amusing turns of phrase: on the great “Jesus Loves You” the narrator feels as though he’s competing with religion for a girl’s affections, dropping the line, “He makes wine from water, but I just bought you a beer.” During “She Hates Everybody” the singer boasts that he’s the sole exception to his girlfriend’s misanthropy, sounding paranoid by the end of the tune: “Yeah, I’m so glad to be one of a kind / But I’m scared to death / She might change her mind.” Guitarist Ken Bethea applies overdriven elan to his propulsive solos over the reliable chug of bassist Murry Hammond and drummer Philip Peeples in the same basic ways he did two decades ago—it’s up to you whether craftsmanship trumps development. Nicole Atkins, who lends some harmony vocals to the record, opens.   v

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