On their first three records, the Old 97's carried their singular style about as far as they could take it. The band created a playful, slack-jawed sound, an impetuous cross between punk and Western Swing, that just kept getting bigger as the band experimented with more complex production techniques. Their latest effort, Satellite Rides, has gotten a lot of press as it's the group's departure from alt-country into the larger, more dangerous realm of pop. Correspondingly, the album photos show the group primped up in turtlenecks and trendy salon-cut bobs. Since the release of Satellite Rides, the Old 97's have cracked the Top 200 on the Billboard charts.
The twitchy pop hooks of the first four songs flirt with the group's old sound enough to bring on a vague nostalgia. The guitar riffs are subtler and much less obtrusive, but the coquettish vocals are still unmistakably Rhett Miller's. The chartbuster "King of All the World" is an archetypal catch-song followed by "Rollerskate Skinny," a ballad of suburban rebellion that cuts close to Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen territory. The fifth track, "Up the Devil's Pay," resurrects the band's former cantering rhythm, dressing it up with spaghetti-Western harmonies.
While their previous songs were eventually critiqued for their complacency and incessant guitar riffing, the new material is intrusive in its own way. Some of the tracks could qualify as likely candidates for the next Dawson's Creek soundtrack. But parts of Satellite Rides settle down enough to reach a certain poignancy. On "Question," Weightless," "Designs On You" and "Book of Poems," the music and lyrics hit a stride that sounds like an uncontrived evolution from their past material. By closing the album with "Nervous Guy," the Old 97's end their foray into big pop by retreating to a point where they seem comfortable, and wiser for their quest.