Old 97s “American Primitive”

ATO Records, 2024

These alt-country pioneers might be veterans by now but they can still deliver the goods.

‘American Primitive’ is the 13th album from alt-country pioneers the Old 97s, a band who, almost uniquely, have maintained the same lineup since their debut release way back in 1994. As such band leader Rhett Miller and his cohorts (Murray Hammond, bass, Ken Bethea, guitar and Philip Peoples on drums) could be excused for merely phoning it in but ‘American Primitive’ (named for some obscure Steven King reference) is quite the delight as the band and some guests (Peter Buck of REM and Scott McCaughey of Young Fresh Fellows) deliver an excellent set of solid, short, punchy and, yes, jangly songs which, despite some dark thoughts, positively dart from the speakers throbbing with energy.

They kick off with a trio of frenzied rockers. ‘Falling Down’ is a galloping number with swathes of guitar swashbuckling throughout as Miller sounds like a paranoid Roger McGuinn waiting for the apocalypse. They then pummel into ‘Somebody’, another high-energy workout with a scathing guitar solo and then the title song looms into view with Miller again sounding like an amphetamined McGuinn as the band rattle on quite brilliantly. Later on there’s some admirable thrashing as on the Clash like opening to ‘Magic’ while ‘This World’ is a panic-driven dose of angst with the band flailing in all directions as guitars spark and burst over an acoustic-driven frenzy.

Less frenzied but still with an edge, ‘Where The Road Goes’ features Buck on 12-string guitar as Miller reflects on life and its opportunities, a song which he says “revisits some of the darkest moments of my life, including a suicide attempt at age 14 that by all rights I shouldn’t have lived through and yet somehow did. In a way it’s like a spiritual travelogue that rolls back through all the places that shaped me for better or worse, and ends up in this beautiful place that I felt so thankful to experience.” Miller’s beautiful place these days is truly exemplified on the album’s stand-out song, ‘By The End Of The Night’ which positively radiates a sense of wonder while its dense production allows space for some lonesome whistling. Dialling it right down ‘Honeypie’ is pure hokum country and all the better for that while ‘Incantation’ finds the band in a reflective mode, channelling the hippie ideals of David Crosby.

The album closes with a short reprise of the opening song, re-titled ‘Estuviera Cayendo’ and played on flamenco guitar by guest musician Jeff Trapp. It’s an odd way to end the album but it does allow for a few moments reflection after the rollercoaster ride which preceded it.


About Paul Kerr 432 Articles
Still searching for the Holy Grail, a 10/10 album, so keep sending them in.
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Fine review! Kind thanks ..

Andrew Riggs

Another find album to play with the rest.