Old 97s, "Graveyard Whistling" (ATO Records)
The Old 97s were one of a handful of touring country-rock bar bands that emerged during the 1990s, writing clever songs that owed more to their rock 'n' roll heroes than anything rooted in Nashville. They are and always have been just twangy enough to have their albums filed in the country bins.
Many of the best bands from that period — the Hangdogs, Uncle Tupelo — have fallen by the wayside. The Old 97s are still rocking 20 years later.
In fact, if there's a theme to their new album, "Graveyard Whistling," it's that this band isn't dead yet. If you don't get the hint in the very first song, "I Don't Wanna Die in This Town," you're not listening.
Despite the occasional macabre undercurrent, this is not a somber album. Singer Rhett Miller leads the band through smart songs with echoes of Depeche Mode, the Clash and other rockers. It's what this band is good at, and it probably sounds better live.
That's especially true on a song called "Bad Luck Charm," a barroom rocker that would hold its own wrapping up any late-night roadhouse set.
So no, this album doesn't break much new ground. But Miller, whose singing has always been the best things about the band, still brings conviction to his work.
That's enough to keep the Old 97s whistling, rockin' or whatever they've been doing all this time — but yeah, taking it right past the graveyard.