Apart from shedding the vintage eyeglasses, Old 97's hasn't really changed much in its 11 years of existence. Mostly, it's bounced back and forth between two spheres of influence, classic country and classic pop, while growing a little better with each bounce. The 2001 album Satellite Rides and Rhett Miller's solo album The Instigator, both excellent, probably marked the farthest extent of the group's pop ambition, so it's little wonder that the new Drag It Up retrenches in country fundamentals. The catchy choruses remain, but they bounce off a deeper twang than they have of late.
There's a country restlessness at work here, and a country casualness, too. Drag It Up opens with "Won't Be Home," which, with its lines about being "born in the back seat of a Mustang," joins its protagonist to a long tradition of lost souls who find their home only in songs. It's also one of the group's best moments, and it sets a standard higher than most of the record can reach. Drag It Up is a proper full-length, but it occasionally plays like an odds-and-ends collection: Everyone takes a turn at the mic, ballads follow uptempo tracks with little care for pacing, and the title of an old album turns up in a new song. (That's usually a sign that a song has been sitting on the shelf for a while, as any Elvis Costello fan can attest.)
That doesn't make Drag It Up a bad record, particularly in the era of the iPod. Quite a few songs would liven up any Old 97's/alt-country playlist, particularly the heartbroken lament "Blinding Sheets Of Rain" and the high-school kiss-off "Friends Forever," which outgeeks even Weezer by throwing in a boast about the chess club. The only problem is that Old 97's vets aren't used to hunting through the pretty-good stuff to get to the really-good stuff. After a three-year break between albums and a switch to a new label, it seems unwise to return on such a minor note.