Since the Old 97's roared out of Dallas more than fifteen years ago, they have blazed a trail through alt-country and power-pop, led by the piercingly observant lyrics of lead singer Rhett Miller. Each new Old 97’s record is hotly anticipated, and rightfully so: “Blame It On Gravity,” from 2008, contained some of the band’s most deeply felt and passionately played songs. But in a career full of high-water marks, "The Grand Theatre Volume 1" is perhaps the most ambitious and accomplished set of recordings yet.
The album, the band’s eighth, began to come together last year, when Miller was on a solo tour of Europe with Steve Earle. “When I started in this band, I wrote on the road constantly,” Miller says. “But I was 23 then, so everything was new to me. Over the years, those strange and wonderful things have begun to feel more commonplace. On the familiar highways, in familiar hotels, it’s pretty easy to turn into a zombie. But on this tour, I was in England and Ireland and Scandinavia, places where I haven’t spent very much time in, and because of that things seemed somehow fresh. I felt recharged. In these old British theaters, you sit around in ancient dressing rooms filled with these objects that could only be in these ancient dressing rooms. It was all very inspiring instead of tiring.”
The result was a set of songs rooted in specific locations. "The title track, which I wrote in Leeds, is like a series of postcards that try to capture the moment of falling in love; it begins in the Grand Theatre, which is a historic venue there, on the elevator. There’s another song, 'Every Night Is Friday Night (Without You),' that I wrote, or at least started to write, while I was walking around in Soho. And a song like ‘The Dance Class’ wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t in Birmingham, trapped in a hotel, looking out at streets that were bleak and gray except for a dance studio across the way. I imagined an agoraphobic who sees a beautiful girl in that studio and fantasizes about being freed by her." Miller’s portraits of love and loneliness are paired with some of the sharpest music the band has ever produced, from the propulsive celebration of “Every Night Is Friday Night (Without You)” to the manic (and almost panicked) energy of “The Dance Class.” There are also moving counterpoints, such as the album’s closer, “The Beauty Marks,” a stark, hushed ballad about a love affair in a London pub.