Old 97's

Leaving us jonesing since 2001's pop-perfect Satellite Rides, Dallas's Old 97's finally give us a Drag, shaking up the jukebox with a more spontaneous sound this go-around -- melding spicy zydeco, plaintive ballads and power rock, plus the 'tude and the twang that made them the kings of the alt-country world. The band's sixth album -- and, according to guitarist Ken Bethea, the "most personal" -- takes on "satellites, stars, moonlight, cavities, death, cheating, Texas, friendship, parenthood, God and storms." Not to mention pain (the pedal steel wailing through "Blinding Sheets of Rain" must be the sound of a heart eating itself), pills ("Valium Waltz") and the past (on "Friends Forever," front man Rhett Miller shows he's still the wittiest wordsmith on the scene, recounting his high school days: "I was a debater / Was not a stoner nor an inline skater / Was not a player nor a player hater…"). The album changes tone as quickly as it changes tempo, waxing as poetically about life's highs ("Bloomington's" sex-as-severe-weather metaphor) as its lows (the dirge-ish reflection of "No Mother" on women who outlive their sons). It makes sense: What drags up must come down.

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Jill Koch