Sunday, July 13, 2014

Old 97's deliver a messed up masterpiece

"Most Messed Up," the new album by the Old 97's, is packaged in spartan fashion.  It includes neither liner notes nor a lyric sheet.  On the back cover, you see that there are "Twelve songs in total," with an album length of "Thirty-nine minutes, fifty-seven seconds."  And then, "Play this album loud."  With that admonition a gauntlet has been thrown down, and the only thing that remains is to find out whether the band can deliver on the promise.

The answer is a resounding "yes."  In fact, "Most Messed Up" is my favorite album of the the year -  certainly the most fun, and probably the truest to the spirit of rock 'n roll.  If "Born to Run" was "a '57 Chevy running on melted down Crystals records" (the great line by Greil Marcus), then "Most Messed Up" is akin to a Dodge Charger that's been driving all night long, a little overheated, running mostly on melted down bottles of Jack Daniels and whatever "medicines" the band was able to get their hands on.

The first clue to what the album is all about can be found in the song titles: "Longer Than You've Been Alive" (which is how the long the band has been playing together), "Let's Get Drunk & Get It On," "Wheels Off," "Wasted," "Intervention," "Most Messed Up."  The second clue can be found in the band credits, just below those for the band regulars: "Additional electric guitar and vocals: Tommy Stinson."  For those too young to remember, Stinson was a founding member of The Replacements, one of the greatest (if not the greatest) of American post-punk bands.  The first few listens, I couldn't quite put my finger on what the sound of "Most Messed Up" reminded me of - but seeing that credit to Stinson, it all came into focus, because there's a distinct "Let it Be" and "Tim" (The Replacements' first two albums) vibe to the proceedings.  The album sounds like it was recorded in one take, without any breaks for silly things like guitar tuning, rehearsals or overdubs.  It's a bit of a mess, but a glorious one.

And while there's no lyrics sheet, you can find them easily enough on the band's website.  A few choice nuggets:

bottles of whiskey bottles of beer

there’s a bottle of medicine somewhere ‘round here

we’ve been in nightclubs and we’ve been in bars

honky-tonks and theaters from Memphis to Mars

most of our shows were a triumph of rock

although some nights I might have been checkin’ the clock

"Longer Than You've Been Alive"

this is the ballad of drinking rye whiskey

and sleeping till 2 on a warm afternoon

telling your journal how badly you miss me

and you can’t believe I’ll be coming so soon

this is the ballad of anticipation

waiting and waiting and waiting and then

finally getting the one you’ve been wanting

and guess what it’s time to start waiting again

"This Is the Ballad"

stop squeezin’ my shoes quit killin’ my buzz

why you wreckin’ my mood what are you the fuzz

I’m so far gone I can’t never get found

I am the most messed up motherf*cker in this town

"Most Messed Up"

The Old 97's have been around for more than twenty years, and I don't think many people would accuse them of being a household name.  That's probably not going to change with the release of "Most Messed Up," and it's unlikely that the band had any expectations that it would.  But trust me, this is about as good as it gets.

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