The inventively sly Old 97's originally came together to mix "bluegrass, surf, country, rock, folk, and some good old-fashioned psychedelia," according to guitarist Ken Bethea in a note attached to press copies of this CD. A decade later, the Texas group is still exploring that unusual fusion -- and this new disc, the first after a three-year absence, is a richly artistic triumph. Singer Rhett Miller is an alt-country chameleon whose uniquely fluid voice suggests everyone from Paul Simon (in "Adelaide" and "In the Satellite Rides a Star") to the quirky Jonathan Richman in the talk-singing of "Bloomington." The album kicks off with the Uncle Tupelo-like drive of "Won't Be Home," a fast shuffle in which Miller ranges from frenzy ("You're a bottle cap away from pushing me too far") to spoofing some modern-cowboy country roots ("I was born in the back seat of a Mustang"). Old 97's keep it offbeat throughout, but the masterful song textures are deliciously aimed at fans whose tastes transcend genres. Old 97's have an outsider's perspective that is subtly endearing, whether it's "Valium Waltz" (about an unattainable woman), the rocking "The New Kid" (about blowing a relationship: "Don't you see that I used to be the new kid?"), or the ironic "Friends Forever," which deals with not-so-fond memories of high school ("I was just a bookworm on a respirator," sings Miller). It adds up to a playfully twisted CD with an overall originality that again flatters this underappreciated band.
© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.