Old 97s,
Fight Songs
(Elektra, 1999)

This CD has been one of my favorites, always on-hand and a first-pick for so long, I guess it never occured to me to review it. It's just out there, spreading universal truth, heartbreak and pain like it has a life force of it own. Surely everyone knows of it, I thought, as no one I meet escapes my efforts at forcing it on them! But since the world sadly extends beyond my sphere of influence, maybe not. So, here goes: Get it. Now.

For moody, naval-gazing indulgence, Fight Songs simply cannot be beat. Oh, we all want to think we're mature and above self-pity, but these guys manage to be mature and self-pitying, too. I love it.

The opening song, "Jagged," socks you with this lyric: "I couldn't drink enough to make this make sense / But I think I'm gonna give it a try." Is it sick that I find that funny? Maybe it's just a little been there, done that, got over it. And I really think they find it funny, too, or I'd be a bit worried since there's also this line -- "Thought so much about suicide / Parts of me have already died" -- coming up in the second track "Lonely Holiday," which goes on to croon "Lonely -- baby I'm not lonely / Baby I'm not -- I've got my imaginary friends / Happy -- baby I'm so happy / Baby I'm so -- I've got my imaginary friends / And if you don't love me, would you please pretend."

Ooh, and this: "Well the hour is late for a visit on a whim / Well the hour is late for a quiet drunken talk / I don't begrudge you the anger in your voice / No I don't begrudge you anything at all" and "Well the couch is deep and the phone receiver's warm / I miss you much too badly to convey to you," both from "What We Talk About."

And in "Valentine," the sweetly heartbroken final track: "Heartbreak, old friend / goodbye it's me again / Of late, I've had some thought of movin' in / Of all the many ways a man will lose his home / Well, there ain't none better than the girl who's movin' on."

Wait! It's not all like that! While of course I am one for wallowing, I recognize that others may need to expand beyond, and so I offer you this from "Alone So Far," my most favorite song on the album: "I am easy in her midst, / Why elaborate, when there's no need to? / But I do, all night, / My words ring like money off a bar. / But she's here, asleep now, / One can only go alone so far."

"And she's so easy in her breathing / Why fall in love, when there's no need to? / But we do all night / Sleep like spoons, forget whom we are / But she's here, and she's wound down now / One can only go alone so far." That "whom" just killed me, I'm so Literate-Boy crazy, I was an instant fan.

I once had a friend who said that she always knew when her bipolar husband was about to go off the deep end because he'd start listening to Old 97s. I get that (although I also feel like that's a little like blaming Ozzy Osbourne for teen suicide) but for those looking for it, there are simple cheery good times on this disc. For me that's not where these boys keep thier talent. In fact, I actually usually skip those tracks. (Who invited the cheerleaders to the pity party?)

Although I love lyrics and can survive pretty bad music if it's filled up with good words, that's not the case here. The Wikipedia entry for the band compares them to Neko Case, Wilco, the Everly Brothers, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, the Pixies and Tom Petty, among others. Rhett Miller fronts the band with a rock/pop/country/rockabilly croon that just gets you there. And he plays guitar to boot. Bassist Murry Hammond, lead guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples back him up for a musical medley which is every bit equal to the lyrical power.

[ visit the artist's website ]

review by
Katie Knapp

1 September 2007

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