Here's the drill: 12 songs to summarize an artist's career, in chronological order (of course).
"12 by" is an old feature; the last time I did one was April of 2009. But upon discovering belatedly that the Old 97's put a new record out last fall (The Grand Theatre Volume 1), I realized they're due for a career summary.
1. If My Heart Was a Car (from Hitchhike to Rhome, 1994)
Lays out a rough blueprint for the band: Fast tempo, country roots, raw but controlled vocals, and metaphor-laden lyrics about how f***ed-up love can be ("If my heart was a car / you would have stripped it a long time ago").
2. 4 Leaf Clover (from Hitchhike to Rhome, 1994)
This one is always a concert highlight.
3. Victoria (from Too Far to Care, 1996)
I want Rhett Miller to write a song about me.
4. Timebomb (from Wreck Your Life, 1997)
A perfect marriage of music, lyrics, and performance. The narrator is about to lose control, and the song spends its entire 3 minute lifespan walking on the right side of chaos.
5. Barrier Reef (from Wreck Your Life, 1997)
"My name's Stuart Ransom Miller / I'm a serial lady killer / She said, 'I'm already dead' / That's exactly what she said."
6. Murder (or a Heart Attack) (from Fight Songs, 1999)
This catchy tune has a chorus that goes "And I may be leavin' myself open to a murder or a heart attack / But I'm leavin' the back door open 'til you come home again." I could easily be interpreted to be about a rocky romance, but it's actually about a lost cat! Somehow that makes me like it even more.
7. Valentine (from Fight Songs, 1999)
There's typically one or two songs on every Old 97's album on which bassist Murray Hammond takes lead vocals. I have to say I'm not a huge fan of those songs, except for Valentine. Over an understated arrangement, Hammond details how "it's a lonely, lonely feeling when your Valentine is wrong."
8. Bird in a Cage (from Satellite Rides, 2001)
Any number of songs could have represented the excellent Satellite Rides album, but I chose this one because it perfectly describes an unfortunate romantic situation I was trapped in, and the way I justified it: "I may be a bird in a cage, but at least it's your cage."
9. Won't Be Home (from Drag It Up, 2004)
Picked this one mostly for the chorus, which plays on repeat in my head on a fairly regular basis.
10. Dance With Me (from Blame It On Gravity, 2008)
With a bit of a nod to Elvis Costello and the Attractions.
11. The One (from Blame It On Gravity, 2008)
The lyrics of this clever number recast the band members (three of whom are mentioned by name) as audacious bank robbers who feel so confident that they choose Highway 101 in Los Angeles, a notoriously traffic-heavy stretch of road, as their escape route. It's really about the band's experience signing a deal with Elektra records, recording in L.A., and feeling like the world is their oyster.
12. Every Night Is Friday Night (Without You) (from The Grand Theatre, Volume One, 2010)
The new album finds the band returning to a purer, rawer country rock sound, and this rocker is one of the finest examples of that.