When reviewing an established, quality band, it can be hard to not gush about how great the band is and how the new album is just another in a long string of successes.
This isn’t one of those times.
“The Grand Theatre Vol. 2” is made up of the 13 songs that were picked during the Sons of Herman Hall sessions last year, where Rhett Miller and the rest of the Old 97’s hashed out material for the 2010 release “The Grand Theatre Vol. 1.” And the reason these songs didn’t make the first cut is obvious after the first listen through the album. Each song seems to just miss the mark. Miller’s lyrical work isn’t up to par and is paired with instrumental work that feels forced. The entire album seems to be trying to capture style of a live performance of Old 97’s on a studio album.
There are a few gems on the album, most notably Murry Hammond’s “White Port.” The song fits in perfectly with Hammond’s style and shows the growth in his lyrical and vocal work that has been expected from album to album.
But a good song from Hammond can’t make up for the glaring lack of a single on the album. Though Miller has only really found true mainstream success with his over used, but still wonderful, song “Question,” he has managed to include at least one or two tracks on each album that were quickly adopted as crowd sing-a-longs. There just isn’t a song on this album that stands out, and it leaves the entire album feeling like a flat set of B-sides.
The most distressing moment comes mid-album during “Ivy,” which is intended to feature lead guitarist Ken Bethea’s tremendous guitar work. The problem is, every lick and even the solo, sound like they were ripped directly from the band’s albums from the late 90’s. While I am all for bands returning to their roots, it just sounds lazy to repeat guitar work, especially when it is as recognizable as Bethea’s.
Overall the album isn’t bad. It just isn’t Old 97’s good. One of the problems about being a band for almost 18 years with 15 releases is that there is an almost impossible expectation for the quality of each album. The album has to be viewed the same way the recent re-release of the band’s work from their days on Bloodshot Records, “Wreck Your Life and Then Some: The Complete Bloodshot Recordings;” as an interesting view into the growth of the band.
“The Grand Theatre Vol. 2” is worth picking up to complete your collection of the Old 97’s, but it shouldn’t be the first introduction to the band that sets the standard for alt-country. For that introduction, go back a few years and check out “Fight Songs,” “Satellite Rides” and the first half of the Sons of Herman Hall sessions “The Grand Theatre Vol. 1.”