Alt-country is a one-way ticket to Nowhereville. Most hard travelers get stuck there, resigned to playing the same ol' dusty ballads to the equally stranded citizens. Occasionally, an enterprising group gets off at one of the exit ramps along the way, detouring through more adventurous paths of rock, pop, and alt-country (Wilco passed through these parts recently). On its fifth album, Satellite Rides, Dallas/L.A. scenesters the Old 97s find their own alternative route. More amped than its first-class predecessor, 1999's Fight Songs, Satellite Rides is leader Rhett Miller's turn off from the Nowhereville highway. He intermittently falls back on old habits (the shit-kicking "Am I Too Late" is standard-issue country rock), but picks up some liberating new ones. His first words on the album say it all: "I was in a real bad way when you turned the power on." Miller doesn't necessarily want to be "King of All the World," as that song lets on, but he wouldn't mind the feeling.
And Satellite Rides is all about the feeling. Most of the twang is gone, and in its place is rock and roll. There's still awkward kid stuff running through Miller's songs -- "I believe in love, but it don't believe in me," he sings in the ultra-catchy "Rollerskate Skinny" -- but he's beginning to act like a grown-up, hitting on a bride, propositioning a gal to do it "in hotel swimming pools," and contemplating the severity of his own anxieties. They're silly lust songs laced with modern misery and something close to the sensation that goes with them -- welcome to Somewhere.