The Texas Shuffle

from New York Times on

Conventional wisdom tends to classify the last few albums from Dallas’ Old 97’s as inconsistent. In recent interviews, even the band itself seemed to be embracing the notion that its latest release, “The Grand Theatre, Volume One,” sounds like a second wind blew in a return to form. But all along, the commitment of the band’s leader, Rhett Miller, to quotably clever couplets has been unwavering. “The bottom line’s been snorted/The bottom card’s been dealt” is how “Champaign, Illinois” begins — a nice piece of scene-setting for a chorus that playfully presents small-town Illinois as the less-optimal alternative to heaven.

If you’re a Bob Dylan fan, listening to those lines will trigger a double take, because they sound like new lyrics set to a borrowed melody. And indeed they’re just that. A few years ago, Mr. Miller was in a touring van without a guitar and kept himself awake by writing new lyrics to familiar songs, including, in this case, Mr. Dylan’s classic “Highway 61 Revisited” track “Desolation Row.” Asked later to grant permission for Mr. Miller’s new take, Mr. Dylan apparently liked what he heard enough to generously split the song’s publishing royalties.

It’s a good guess the tune earned Mr. Dylan’s consent more for its differences than for its similarities. All the hallmarks of a classic Old 97’s song are front and center: a slightly subversive chorus, a garage-rock backbeat and a perfectly twangy guitar solo from Ken Bethea. Thankfully, Mr. Miller didn’t try to stretch his version to match the original’s 11-minute, 10-verse approach. And not once does he try to ape Mr. Dylan’s oft-caricatured phrasing. Instead, his voice has a playfulness that suggests he knows you’re onto him.

Even if the melody is a little too good not to give it away, it’s a return to form nonetheless, albeit one with an unusually exceptional pedigree.

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