Is it bad form to promote your own tribute? It almost makes you think about the crass sort of person who, say, slaps his last name on every building, golf course, airline, casino, steak, or bottle of wine or water that he has anything to do with. Now, what about if it is an employee who instigates a tribute to his employer? That seems pretty cool, especially since so many employees would probably be more likely to spit on something that glorifies their bosses than to work, unpaid, to create a monument to them.
So, let’s give kudos to Jeff “Jefe” Neely, the “website guy” for Old 97’s, who decided that it would be a good idea to get other musicians to cover Old 97’s songs and to use the project as a fundraiser for charity: water, whose mission is to “bring clean and safe drinking water to every person in the world.” The charity was founded in 2006 by Scott Harrison, a former nightclub and fashion promoter after a life changing trip to Liberia.
The band got behind the project, which became known as Desperate Times, and helped to get artists to contribute covers to the project, which was funded through a Pledge Music campaign. In fact, many of the artists had toured with Old 97’s at some point in the band’s two-decade-plus career, and a significant number are from Texas, where Old 97’s formed. Not surprisingly, therefore, most of them inhabit a similar Americana/country/rock space as the band they are covering. The contributors, all well-respected artists if not chart-toppers, seem to have embraced the challenge. For the most part, although the covers don’t generally stray too far from the originals, each is distinctive and all are of exceptional quality.
Old 97’s have been together since 1993, and were early champions of the alt-country movement. Unusually for such a long-lived band, their membership has remained the same — singer/rhythm guitarist and primary songwriter Rhett Miller, bass player/secondary vocalist and songwriter Murry Hammond, lead guitarist Ken Bethea, and drummer Philip Peeples are both road-tested and studio-savvy. Their songs tend to break down into two basic styles: one with a loping, country feel, and the other with a more pop sensibility, although always retaining some Texas twang. Most of the songs on Desperate Times include some aspects of both styles, if not always in the same proportions as the original.
For example, one of the most striking covers is the first on the disc, Hayes Carll’s take on “Let’s Get Drunk & Get It On.” The original, from Old 97’s most recent album, 2014’s Most Messed Up, is a rowdy rocker from the more country side of the ledger, as befits its raunchy title. But Carll, a fellow Texan from the Townes Van Zandt school, strips it down and slows it down, turning the original’s bawdy come-on into something somehow more tender. Similarly, Austin-based Monte Warden softens and countrifies “Won’t Be Home No More,” emphasizing its sadness.
A few of the covers sound very similar to the originals – for example, Dallas band The O’s version of “Salome” adds a banjo, but otherwise doesn’t vary much from the template. The Occasional Milkshake, featuring Mark Bryan (founding member, songwriter and lead guitarist for Hootie & the Blowfish), turns in a faithful take on “Niteclub,” and Western Star, a band that includes two sons of Ken Bethea’s oldest friend, covers “Dressing Room Walls” sounding like a sped-up, live version (in a good way). And Ben Kweller’s cover of “Question” retains the original’s yearning, but without aping the sound of the original (or Rhett Miller’s solo album version).
Both almost-superstar Kelly Willis and Grey Griffin (the ex-wife of Murry Hammond) torch up their covers. Willis’ version of “Rollerskate Skinny” features her signature classic country voice over a more alt-country arrangement, while Griffin (with hers and Hammond’s son Tex on vocals) turns “Can’t Get a Line” from a rocker into a classic country rock ballad.
Denton, Texas based Slobberbone attacks the uptempo “Melt Show” as if it was one of its own gut shaking rockers, and Will Johnson, of now-defunct Denton band Centro-matic, adds some brooding intensity to “Color of a Lonely Heart is Blue,” originally sung by Hammond. Former Gourd Kevin Russell, recording here as Shinyribs, funks up “Victoria,” with horns, female backup singers and boogie-woogie piano.
Some of the contributors, however, took their covers into strange and unusual places. Yet another Dentonian, Sarah Jaffe, turns the surprisingly upbeat song of jealousy, “The New Kid” into an ominous, electronic nightmare. “Wish The Worst,” a country-rock ballad of lost love, obsession and anger is transformed by the Travoltas (a band led by Salim Nourallah, who produced a number of Old 97’s albums) into an odd, loungey lament. The Deathray Davies, a Dallas band whose members play in a side project, Cantina, with Philip Peeples, take the Hammond-sung folk song, “Valentine,” and morph it into a distorted alt-rocker. Jessi Zazu & Linwood Kirk of Tennessee band Those Darlins, slow down “Four Leaf Clover,” and add an almost lush, early-60’s arrangement. And The Polyphonic Spree make “Streets of Where I’m From” sound less like the original’s twangy rock than one of their typical, trippy choral pop confections.
Overall, Desperate Times is a strong collection that stands on its own. If you are familiar with the originals, you will appreciate the artists’ interpretations. But even if you didn’t know that it was a tribute album, the songs are strong enough to be enjoyable.
Desperate Times tracklisting:
Let’s Get Drunk and Get It On (Hayes Carll)
Salome (The O’s)
Rollerskate Skinny (Kelly Willis)
Question (Ben Kweller)
Won’t Be Home No More (Monte Warden)
Melt Show (Slobberbone)
Valentine (The Deathray Davies)
The New Kid (Sarah Jaffe)
Four Leaf Clover (Jessi Zazu & Linwood Kirk of Those Darlins)
Color of a Lonely Heart is Blue (Will Johnson)
Streets of Where I’m From (The Polyphonic Spree)
Wish the Worst (The Travoltas)
Niteclub (Occasional Milkshake)
Can’t Get a Line (Grey Griffin)
Dressing Room Walls (Western Star)
You can still get swag ranging from downloads of Desperate Times, to t-shirts, to a pass to attend an Old 97s sound check, to an early cassette tape of music that predates the band’s debut, if you just click here. You can get the album by going to iTunes, Amazon, or CDBaby. Or you could forego the stuff, and just donate to charity:water by clicking here.