Back in 2002, one couldn't help but wonder if front man Rhett Miller's debut solo venture, The Instigator, spelled the beginning of the end for the Old 97's. Despite a track record as solid as any on the alt-rock landscape, the band had been jettisoned by its label and left in the lurch. And frankly, their flaccid, 2004 return, Drag It Up, did little to dispel the impression of impending doom. Yes, the boys were back from the brink, but the signature spark was gone and the fat lady was warming up in the wings.
Well, the hefty ol' gal can sit her fat ass down for now, because Miller and company ain't finished yet. Although Blame It On Gravity doesn't measure up to the band's most compelling work, the brainy, rambunctious spirit of old is back in spades. If 1999's Fight Songs and 2001's Satellite Rides feature the group's most uniformly powerful batches of songs, Gravity represents a triumph of another kind, a left-for-dead outfit's rejuvenated commitment to each other and to making the kind of music they damn well please.
Which isn't to say that the new record is a platter devoid of choice cuts. Far from it. For a welcome dose of trademark Old 97's cowpunk wallop, dial up "Early Morning" and "The One," a tongue-in-cheek tale that casts the band members as bank robbers. Written by Miller in the late-1990s but never released until now, the song originally celebrated the band's newly minted status as infiltrate-and-doublecross music biz pirates. Nowadays, given the quartet's ups and downs during the decade hence, the tune resonates more as a survivor's anthem, and a damn spunky one at that.
Ever the king of burning yearning and rueful self-deprecation, Miller splits the uprights with "No Baby I" and "My Two Feet," a pair of thoroughly charming melodic romps. Bass man Murry Hammond evokes the ebullient spirit of fellow Texan Buddy Holly on "This Beautiful Thing," and makes his most memorable contribution to an Old 97's collection to date with the wistful "Color of a Lonely Heart is Blue."
Whether or not Blame It On Gravity ranks with the band's best once all is said and done, there's fresh grease on the gears and a fire ragin' in the boiler. To paraphrase Chuck Berry, you can't stop the train, you gotta let it roll on. It's damn good to have the Old 97's back on track.