Whenever Rhett Miller hands over the Old 97s to another band member, they become dull and lifeless. On their sixth album, Drag It Up, guitarist Ken Bethea and bassist Murry Hammond take the lead on a few songs, and their flat, charm-free readings promptly halt any momentum gained up to that point.
And whenever Miller hands over the Old 97s to the alt-country ghetto they started in -- as he also does on Drag It Up -- they strain for twang. The Texas-bred group's previous two albums, 1999's Fight Songs and 2001's Satellite Rides, rode upon power pop and '60s pop terrain, respectively. Miller's sharp, hook-packed songs discovered a home off the range, and they were better and more interesting because of it.
With a new label that welcomes their alt-country slumming, the Old 97s have made their most obvious, murky, and dreary album yet. It's one last attempt to gain back the No Depression yokels they lost during Miller's twang-free solo-album phase. The occasional sparks -- "Won't Be Home," the jaunty "The New Kid" -- come not from inspiration, but from familiarity. Drag It Up panders. Drag It Up sags. Drag It Up drags this band down.