A new album by the Old 97's is always something to look forward to. The combination of frontman Rhett Miller's ingeniously quirky she-done-me-wrong lyrics and the band's rocking, upbeat, country-laced melodies just seems to get better and better, and it started out pretty damn good. That this solo debut lacks the concerted instrumental attack of the Dallas twangcore foursome's records is no big surprise, but anyone expecting the intimacy of Miller's recent solo acoustic tours is bound to be disappointed.
A current resident of Los Angeles, Miller goes city-slick in these sessions with producer Jon Brion (Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann, Macy Gray, everyone else), and the result is a surprisingly lightweight collection of love songs -- rounding up the usual hooks and Beatlesque background vocals -- that thankfully gets better as it goes along. Even the lyrics aren't quite up to snuff, delving too shallowly in easy mysticism, though there are flashes of the runaway lyrical genius Miller has displayed in the past, particularly in opener "Our Love" and closer "Terrible Vision." The Old 97's-style rocker "The El," with X's John Doe's forgettable background vocals, is an obvious standout. Robyn Hitchcock's guest shot on "Point Shirley" is simply irritating, but Miller's Hitchcock imitation in "I Want to Live" makes for one of the catchier tracks.
At its best, this is pretty sexy stuff, Miller's voice half-breaking with tenderness on "World Inside the World" (which gets points for name-checking Don DeLillo) and the redemptive "Your Nervous Heart." At its worst, it's just like the better work of the more mainstream acts Miller seems poised to join.
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