Rhythm & Views

Old 97's

Old 97's frontman Rhett Miller says the band's seventh album is a return to its earlier high-energy sound, a "second childhood" and a re-focus on songwriting.

From the first searing tube-amp-distorted lick of "The Fool," you know he's not lying: The songwriting is melodic and meticulous, the production nice and raw. Yet the record just isn't as invigorating as Too Far to Care or as cathartic as Wreck Your Life. That's the problem with bands that debut with brilliant, genre-redefining work: The only place to go is down.

Still, Gravity has good qualities uniquely its own. In the past, Miller often separated out his country-rock influences from his Kinks-esque leanings track by track, but "No Baby I" and "Early Morning" nod to Ray Davies as much as Johnny Cash--all in the same take. It's a natural melding Miller has struggled to achieve for most of his career.

Bassist Murry Hammond, once just the harmony and covers singer, shows another stride forward in his songwriting with "Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue," the most arresting track here and perhaps his best to date--and not just because I've been humming it all week. The soft, controlled crack in his voice on the hook has the transcendent quality of a singer finally come into his own: It's enough to send me to cdbaby.com to hunt for Hammond's recently released but obscure solo album, I Don't Know Where I'm Going but I'm on My Way.