Old 97’s let it bleed on new LP “American Primitive,” out Friday

Standing in front of a painted wall, the Old 97s face the camera

Old 97’s. Photo: Jason Quigley

There’s a sort of tightly wound snarl to American Primitive, the new Old 97’s record, that’s unsettling. “You’ve got to dance like the world is falling down around you, because it is,” spits Rhett Miller on the album opener, “Falling Down.”

The beloved Dallas-based band has trafficked in rollicking, generally upbeat alt-country — look no further than the group’s justifiably celebrated live gigs, a case study in exuberance. So to hear the shadows creeping in throughout its 13th studio album, out Friday, can feel unnerving.

This year, the band’s debut, Hitchhike to Rhome, turns 30.  And 2020’s Twelfth was caught in the undertow of the COVID-19 pandemic and never got its proper due. So Miller, Murry Hammond, Ken Bethea and Philip Peeples aligned themselves with producer Tucker Martine, posting up at Portland, Ore.’s Flora Studio.

The quartet also welcomed high-profile guest stars, including R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and the Minus 5’s Scott McCaughey. But the focal point is, as always, Miller’s evocative lyrics mingling with his bandmates’ carefully considered crash, bang and boom.

“Over the last year of touring in celebration of our 30th anniversary, it’s been impossible to not feel some emotion welling up at the idea that my bandmates and I have been in this close brotherhood for so long,” Miller said in press materials.

In that sense, American Primitive also feels like a smartly conceived raging-against-the-dying-of-the-light — the sound of a band settled into its third decade of existence, but still as full of fight as it ever was.

Working without a net

Unusually for the band, the Old 97’s arrived in Portland with nary a song worked up between them. The wham-bam Primitive sessions with Martine were by design, according to Miller: “This was the first record we’ve ever done with zero pre-production. It’s us working completely on instinct, leaning on 30 years of playing together to come up with something on the fly rather than overthinking any of our choices.”

Baring it all

Miller, who generally saves any sort of visceral vulnerability for his solo work, brings a bit of that rawness into the 97’s world, allowing the lyrics to feel as rough and reactive as the music underneath. Of the absorbing lead single, “Where the Road Goes,” Miller explained that it reaches back to some truly harrowing moments. “It revisits some of the darkest moments of my life, including a suicide attempt at age 14 that by all rights I shouldn’t have lived through and yet somehow did,” Miller said in press materials.

Sometimes, it’s good to get dirty

It takes a band with more than a few years under its belt to be willing to buck its long-held image, and be confident that gamble will pay off.  A brisk 41 minutes, American Primitive feels like vintage Old 97’s, even as the record showcases some bold new directions for the band — a wonderfully scrappy rawness. For as much as Primitive helps mark a significant year in the band’s life, so too does it lay down a marker for the next three decades. Far from entering the back stretch calmly, the Old 97’s often sound here like they are only getting warmed up.

Rhett Miller will perform solo at the Kessler Theater May 16, as part of Eric Nadel’s annual birthday benefit celebration. Tickets are sold out.

Preston Jones is a North Texas freelance writer and regular contributor to KXT. Email him at [email protected] or find him on X (@prestonjones). Our work is made possible by our generous, music-loving members. If you like how we lift up local music, consider becoming a KXT sustaining member right here.