Hit By A Train: The Best Of Old 97's
REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 07/29/2006
Though alt-country barely made a hiccup on the Billboard charts, you wouldn’t know it by the internal debates of its fans. When I was working at my college newspaper, there were a few news editors who always used to get drunk right after the paper was sent to press. The late-night soundtrack would usually end with either Ryan Adams or The Old 97s. And almost on the basis of the fact that The Old 97’s didn’t achieve quite the sales that Adams did, The Old 97’s and frontman Rhett Miller became the sentimental favorite of the news editors.
The “which frontman is better” argument has been going on since Paul McCartney vs. Mick Jagger. Tupac vs. Biggie. Cobain vs. Vedder. Prince vs. Michael Jackson. In terms of the Rhett Miller vs. Ryan Adams argument, you could argue that Miller’s influences veer more toward traditional, rockabilly standard bearers like Merle Haggard or Buddy Holly.
Even if you haven’t heard of the Old 97’s, chances are you’ve probably heard their music. This year’s date movie The Break-Up had three Old 97’s songs and the band’s music has been featured in shows like Scrubs and King Of The Hill. The band is known for its frenzied live performances, but if you need a primer for the band’s ability, look no further than the recently-released Hit by a Train: The Best of The Old ‘97s.
The topics of the Old 97’s tunes are hardly unique: heartbreak, drunkenness and raising hell (usually all in one song). “Timebomb” and “Four Leaf Clover” are hellraising rockers, powered by Philip Peeples’ drumming. In “El Paso,” Peeples’ lays down a drumline that sounds like a speeding train while Ken Bethea and Murray Hammond perfectly compliment the percussion with their guitar and bass riffs respectfully. Bethea’s guitar playing can be overlooked by a casual listen since it gels so well with the overall sound of the band. His solos always sounded like they were integral parts of the song, not a chance to show off.
Like most things the Old 97’s have done, Hit By A Train is unconventional -- even for a greatest hits package. While most bands that have hopped from label to label release greatest hits packages that do not include hits from previous record labels, Hit by a Train features songs from their Bloodshot years as well as their years on Elektra. In addition, the album also has a few live tunes, giving many listeners ample opportunities to kick themselves for not catching one of their live shows.
Some of the Old 97’s albums (especially Wreck Your Life) are greatest hits packages by definition, i.e. an album containing all great songs. But if you have never picked up an Old 97’s album, you needn’t feel guilty for picking up Hit By A Train rather than one of their earlier classics. This and a six-pack are the perfect recipe for a lonely and hot Friday summer night.