Old 97's

Satellite Rides (Elektra)

Singer and guitarist Rhett Miller wants to ask us something. In track seven of the new Old 97's album, Satellite Rides, he drops the bomb: "Someday somebody's going to ask you/ A question that you should say yes to/ Maybe tonight I've got a question for you."

He wants to marry us! And it's about time. Miller's been one of Texas' biggest flirts since the Old 97's released Hitchhike to Rhome in 1994. That record was a sloppy graffiti tag, a name scribbled in the altcountry walk of fame before the cement had a chance to dry. And there was Miller, holding a Redi-Mix-covered stick and wearing a shit-eating grin. He was the archetypal man-child: a lithe nerd with thick glasses, a Muppet's energy, and heartbreak dripping from each sleeve.

We wanted to take him home right then, but so did everyone else. And he knew it too. So he and his band played the field, putting out three records that got progressively cleaner as Miller dropped the country-savant role and started running 'round town with tight little pop ditties.

He was sowing his wild oats, which was OK because we knew he would get that restlessness out of his system and commit. And we were right. Satellite Rides is the platter of grown-upness we kept promising our parents he'd produce. And look at him now: He's wearing contacts and trying out bits of Elvis Costello ("Can't Get a Line") and XTC ("Roller Skate Skinny"). As far as pop music goes, Satellite Rides is accomplished, fun stuff.

But as far as the Old 97's go, the record feels stifled. Whereas Murry Hammond's bass used to sound like a house on fire and Ken Bethea's Texasteroned solos and high-octane fills stuck out like shocks of hair in an unruly cowlick, Satellite Rides' production flattens the spunkiness, smoothing it down to better support Miller's equally smoothed-over voice.

There are exceptions, mind you -- standouts like "Am I Too Late," "Weightless," and "Bird in a Cage" escape the clean production work and live a little. And "Question," Miller's sweet acoustic number about our upcoming nuptials, has got to be one of the most charming songs in years. But now that we have him, we have a question of our own: Is this the man we thought we were marrying?

 
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