With their new Satellite Rides (Elektra), the Old 97's continue their dramatic transformation, begun on 1999's Fight Songs, from generic alt-country lunks to irresistible pop dynamos. Front man Rhett Miller has been living in LA for several years now, but the rest of the band still lives in Dallas, and the time they all spent together there working on the album really shows. The songs are simple and straightforward, and their economical drive makes for a serious wallop when they hit. Miller writes well and often about affairs of the heart (not to mention the loins); he's good when he's cheeky, as in "Rollerskate Skinny" ("Do you wanna meet up at the Picwood Bowl? / We can knock nine down and leave one in the hole"), but never too corny when he's serious (in "Weightless" he imagines the peace he and a quarreling lover might find in heaven). Musically, the record's more cohesive than Fight Songs, where this long-running group sometimes sounded like a singer-songwriter with a really good studio band; here Miller is just a highly charismatic cog in a well-oiled machine. The single "King of All the World" in particular benefits from the scrappy, amped-up power-pop guitar of Ken Bethea. "Am I Too Late" is the album's one unfortunate regression into No Depression, but otherwise Satellite Rides is the best guitar pop record I've heard yet this year. Friday, April 13, 8 PM, the Vic, 3145 N. Sheffield; 773-472-0449 or 312-559-1212.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Williams.