The Old 97's hammer out brawling, bare-knuckled, country-fused pop grit and write lyrics about bad, bad times:broken-down emotions, empty bottles, complicated insecurities. Not exactly lighthearted fare, and this, their fourth disc, finds the Texas foursome still waiting for their meds to kick in. Fight Songs is music for 13-year-olds to shoot bottle rockets off to, right before the damn kids burn their neighbor's house down. It starts with the Neil Young-like guitar crunch of "Jagged," a cathartic lament about internal white noise. Then things get really sad:"Lonely Holiday" has our narrator contemplating suicide at that time of the year, and "19" follows a high school grad as he learns the sting of romantic regret. Two of the more hook-soaked songs include "Murder (Or a Heart Attack)," a semisnotty tale of a lost lover ("And I may be leaving myself open to a murder or a heart attack/But I'm leaving the back door open till you come back"), and "Oppenheimer," which is either a love story about the mortality of romance in the days of atomic buildup or the nuclear whammy of an atomic orgasm—you decide. But what ultimately makes the Old 97's so engaging is their combination of layered backing vocals; clap-along melody lines; and singer Rhett Miller's sardonic, bruised-orange singing. He sounds like he spent a lonely afternoon wrestling with the tragedies of life. (Robert Stapleton)
Hairy On the Inside
Most British bands are an arrogant lot when they first start out, slagging off the competition at every turn. The Wonder Stuff was no exception—singer Miles Hunt always seemed to be pissed off about something. The group's attitude-heavy repertoire even included song titles like "Radio Ass Kiss," "I Wish Them All Dead" and "Your Big Assed Mother." Despite all the vitriol, some sensitivity did seep out on 1991's Never Loved Elvis. Now Hunt revisits much of that album's tone and elegant arrangements with Hairy On the Inside, his compelling, acoustic-based solo debut. Here, the Englishman ably handles most of the instruments, with a few assists from former Stuffies Malc Treece on guitar and Martin Bell on violin and programming. The result is a more mature Hunt who bares his soul (especially during the stark, gut-wrenching "Manna From Heaven" and a reflective "Getting over You") like never before. Then, on "Everything Is Not Okay," he weighs in with his own take on Millennium Madness that cuts right to the point: "The cavalry are not on their way/The Murder Mile's a step away." Even a few stray guitar strings and daft rhymes—"Four to the Floor" pairs "tomorrow" and actor Benicio Del Toro—can't detract from Hairy On the Inside's appeal. Clearly, Hunt has earned a charter membership into the gangsta folk club, alongside John Wesley Harding and Billy Bragg. (George A. Paul)
Chip Robinson is one of those guys who eats, drinks and sleeps music. At this year's South by Southwest fest, the singer/guitarist and his comrades turned in a performance that balanced achy, country-fried ballads and rootsy rockers to remarkably majestic effect—just as they do here. It's actually a wonder these songs came out at all, since Robinson's former Backslider band mates jumped ship halfway through the recording. Fortunately, Southern Lines doesn't bear any signs of rushed production (with Eric Ambel and Don Dixon at the helm, though, it's hard to go wrong). "Abe Lincoln" gets everything off to a rambunctious start, with Robinson painting vivid lyrical pictures by name dropping such seemingly unconnected references as Jean Harlow and the Flamin' Groovies. "Cross Your Heart" is a traditional country ballad enriched with enough female backing vocals and pedal-steel guitar to make it perfect for a slow grind at your local honky-tonk. "Don't Ask Me Why" shifts gears into more raucous territory, a barnburner of a tune that comes off like a cross between an edgy John Hiatt and a shit-faced Crazy Horse. Other highlights include a plaintive "Psychic Friend," featuring an understated, Steve Earle-styled vocal, and the acoustic title track that could've easily fit onto Bruce Springsteen's Ghost of Tom Joad. But "Two Candles," a sparse tale of resignation that's soaked in mournful Hammond organ, is the disc's shining moment. There's still seven months' worth of albums left to come out this year, but the Backsliders have made one of the best so far. (GAP)
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