Old 97s are returning to their roots…sort of. Their new record Graveyard Whistling was recorded in the same studio in West Texas as their now 20-year old release Too Far to Care. And though they’ve come a long way since, they’re one of the most consistent bands of the last two decades. 2014’s Most Messed Up was proof that they haven’t lost their gusto and that frontman Rhett Miller still has plenty to say as a songwriter. It was a rowdy retrospective of the ups and downs of being a touring band that’s been around forever and has a bottomless well of history. Graveyard Whistling is the unpretentious, deep breath follow-up that is anything but a relaxing, post-tour coast. It’s rambunctious, loud rock and roll and it is just what the doctor ordered.
There are few songwriters who can pen a drinking song like Rhett Miller, and there are a handful on Graveyard Whistling to which you can toast. “Irish Whiskey Pretty Girls” may be a bit clichéd, but it’s a joyous hoe-down of a party song about the real weaker sex – men. “Thank God for Irish whiskey/Thank the devil for pretty girls,” Miller growls in the opening lines alongside some hearty fiddle playing. It might not be the band’s most profound tune, but it’s a bunch of easy fun and it will no doubt garner many a sing-a-long at their live shows. “Drinkin’ Song” is a heavy head-banger about soothing thyself after a shitty day with a drink. It finds the band throwing a little punk rock into their usual alt-country cocktail, and it has the album’s most head spinning guitar.
Graveyard Whistling isn’t all about imbibing, though. Miller mines deeper territory with “I Don’t Wanna Die in This Town”, a frantic plea to get the hell out of a stifling place, and “All Who Wander” is a steel guitar-spiked swoon about losing yourself and, again, trying to find a way out. But the true gem of is the album’s finale “Those Were the Days”. A nostalgic look at being young and carefree, it feels signature Old 97s, with vivid storytelling and humor. It is why we will always come back to them, even for another 20 years.