Was it rock and roll? Was it country and western? By 1997, Rhett Miller and his Old 97’s were, well, Too Far to Care. As Miller recalls in his liner notes to Omnivore Recordings’ new 2-CD expanded edition of the band’s seminal third album (OVCD-45, 2012), his “little band from Texas…had only recently gotten folks to stop referring to their particular brand of music as ‘rockabilly.’” The Old 97’s were subject to a major label bidding war in which Elektra Records proved victorious, giving the quartet of musicians a chance for the “big time,” whatever their genre.
What the Old 97’s unquestionably were was antidote to the prevailing pop music of the day. The Top 5 singles of the year ranged from hip-hop to novelty pop and everything in between, courtesy Sean Combs, Elton John, Aqua, No Doubt and Hanson – everything except the Old 97’s brand of amped-up country rock. The original 13 tracks on Too Far to Care, all jointly credited to the band, touched on familiar country tropes: loneliness, troubled relationships, troubled women, imagery of bars, travelling and reckless youth. But the sound was akin to an outlaw on speed: fast and furious, taking no prisoners. This wasn’t country-rock in the sense of the late-period Byrds, or cosmic country like The Flying Burrito Brothers, or whatever pop-rock-country style in which you’d like to place Eagles. Miller bristled at the “rockabilly” label, and it certainly wasn’t pop-country like Shania Twain or today’s Taylor Swift, either.
But it’s so decreed in the music business that everything must have a name, The Old 97’s were considered to be at the vanguard of “alt-country.” Fifteen years on, their music sounds squarely in the rock tradition, with a C&W influence adding flavor. The ferocious rock and roll attack of Rhett Miller (guitar), Ken Bethea (guitar), Murry Hammond (bass) and Philip Peeples (drums) wasn’t beholden to conventions of either genre. The album, produced by Wally Gagel, sounds like a band record and a true collaboration in every way. The group even chose to revisit a couple of older songs with an eye to improving them. “Four Leaf Clover” was re-recorded from Hitchhike To Rhome, this time as a duet with Exene Cervenka of the band X. The raucous “Big Brown Eyes” also was remade, the original version having appeared on Wreck Your Life.
Emboldened by their youth, the group howls through the frenetic rave-up of the opening salvo “Timebomb,” the wry story song “Barrier Reef” (“My name’s Stewart Ransom Miller/I’m a serial lady killer/She said I’m already dead/That’s exactly what she said”) and the dark-hued ode to a woman “who broke every part of me,” “Salome.” The eponymous lady is ready to “wreck another man,” her tale enhanced by Jon Rauhouse’s pedal steel. Like many of the songs on Too Far to Care, “Salome” is crafted within a familiar pop framework, complete with a catchy chorus, but it stands apart for its slower tempo and the added color provided by Rauhouse.
There’s true twang on “W. Texas Teardrops,” which adds banjo to the mix as well as lead vocals by Murry Hammond. Subtle harmonies enliven “Curtain Calls,” with one of the many instrumental riffs that burrow into your consciousness while listening. The ample instrumental breaks show off the tight, taut interplay between the four players and the occasional guests such as producer Gagel, playing piano on “Niteclub.” Though each member is accomplished, Philip Peeples might be the unsung hero of the album, his drums and percussion instantly setting the tone (and keeping the beat like a freight train, natch!) for each song. Rhett Miller’s vocals, able to be both forceful and languid, convey a wealth of emotion. While the lyrics are technically ragged in many places, the turns of phrase are often memorable. On the Times Square-composed “Broadway,” Miller muses from “a hotel room that costs as much as my apartment” about the titular place, “enough to make a crooked man go straight.” On “Streets of Where I’m From,” he reasons, “Now I’m old…I’m well past 25!” Over a torrent of blazing guitars, he asks “Will you sober up and let me down?” in the potent “Melt Show.” Gagel’s production throughout is subtle but immediate.
What bonus material will you find? Hit the jump!
The original Too Far to Care fills most of the first disc of this two-CD set, and it’s joined by four bonus tracks. “Northern Line” first appeared on a 1997 EP, but the final three tracks are all previously unissued. Interestingly, these may be the most explicitly countrified songs on the whole disc. “Beer Cans” is a delicious pop song written by Philip Edward Bennison, while Stanley Johnson’s “No Doubt About It” (“I’m crazy over you!”) is another modernized hoedown, filled with joy. The concluding track, the fiery “Holy Cross,” is also heard as a demo on the second disc here.
That additional disc here is entitled They Made a Monster: The Too Far to Care Demos, and its eleven tracks encompass both songs that made the album and ones that didn’t. This 40-minute disc could stand on its own merits, consisting of both band demos and those performed, acoustic, by Rhett Miller alone. The acoustic tracks are the most revealing, with Miller’s drawling vocals even more lovelorn and typically “country” than on the finished versions. Though less polished, there’s still great emotion in the rough performances. In their embryonic forms, the stories of “Niteclub” and “Broadway” still resonate. More than half of They Made a Monster is devoted to songs not on the original Too Far to Care, though, and so those songs will prove the most eye-opening for longtime fans. There are more melancholy story songs and character studies, like “Daybed,” about a man with “a self-destructive nature” (“He never leaves well enough alone/It’s only me on the daybed/There is no them, there is no you/And this bed’s not big enough for two…”) The brisk “When I Crash” likewise concerns itself with a man on the verge (“Are you gonna catch me when I crash?”), and indeed, the Old 97’s seem concerned with those misfits on the fringes – or the times when we all feel like misfits, at the very least! “Sound of Running” is a classic “train song” with a felicitous melody and simple, effective acoustic arrangement.
Tom DeSavia and Cheryl Pawelski have produced this lovingly-designed anniversary edition. Both discs are housed in a digipak, and the enclosed booklet offers brief recollections by Miller and DeSavia as well as lyrics. Gavin Lurssen and Reuben Cohen have done a fine job remastering, and the sound quality is better than expected on the demo disc, as well. Rhett Miller, with and without the Old 97’s, continues to beat to his own drummer today with his personal brand of music-making. Too Far to Care is a reminder of when the indie band met the major label on its own terms, with bold results.