Much as self-respecting power pop groups understand that their records are never going to join their idols’ in the hit parade, country-rockers like Dallas’ Old 97’s know damn well that wiseacre underground sensibilities never got anyone a warm welcome on Music Row. Good for them. The energetic quartet, with ties to Killbilly and roots in a Denton outfit called Smeg Wentfields and Dallas’ Peyote Cowboys, is cool and catholic enough to get both Texas honkytonk titan Don Walser and head Mekon Jon Langford to make guest appearances on its second album, which includes the latter’s “Over the Cliff” — as well as Bill Monroe’s “My Sweet Blue-Eyed Darlin’.”
Hitchhike to Rhome has tight, crisp Telecaster sound, an easygoing backbeat and affably unconvincingly high-lonesome vocals by acoustic strummer Rhett Miller and bassist Murry Hammond. Neither traditionalists nor reverent Gram Parsons fusionists, Old 97’s don’t waste much elbow grease on seriousness, but their efforts in the direction of silliness won’t strain any funnybones, either. The middle ground they inhabit is fine: the music do-si-dos with lyrics that are reliably good-humored even when they’re not overly clever. (“If my heart was a car / You would have stripped it a long time ago” locates the median strip pretty accurately.) Those who stick around to album’s end will be rewarded with “Ken’s Polka Thing,” a slack accordion instrumental by lead guitarist Ken Bethea, and a little something extra.
Wreck Your Life puts a little more meaty ham on the wry, bolstering the twangy rig-rock with rattlesnake venom while playing up the lyrics’ she-done-me-wrong/I’m-a- bad-boy sardonicism in memorable numbers like “Victoria,” “Doreen” and “W-I-F-E.” In lazy waltz time, Miller worries “I’m gonna die someday staring at the dressing room wall.” Explaining his source of desperation, he opines “I stopped believing in true love when Reagan was king / Years have gone by now and the years haven’t changed anything / Trying like hell to get better but I’m gearing myself for the worst / Punk rock’ll get you if the government don’t get you first.” Words to inscribe in nightclub bathrooms everywhere.