When Rhett Miller and his band, the Old 97's, went into the studio last year to record their fifth album, "Satellite Rides," the objective was clear: "We wanted to be the saviors of rock 'n' roll," says Miller, with no discernible trace of irony. "But it just seems like a moot point to try and do something like that these days."
Miller may be onto something. At a time when rock seems stuck in a perpetually callow adolescence, can a great record make a big enough noise in the culture? Miller and the other members of the Old 97's may have embarked on a fool's errand with "Satellite Rides," but Miller's too in love with rock to give up without a fight. Otherwise, he might have given up a long time ago.
The Old 97's have spent their career in a cult-band holding pattern. For close to a decade, they have endeared themselves to fans of the alternative-country subgenre called No Depression, which also includes Wilco, Son Volt and the Jayhawks.
But Miller, bassist Murry Hammond, guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples bow down to such classic pop bands as Big Star and the dB's as much as they do to saint Hank Williams, and they rock out more often than they swoon.
On "Satellite Rides," as on 1997's "Too Far to Care" and "Fight Songs" two years later, the band, which plays the House of Blues on May 7, attacks Miller's literate love songs with muscle and finesse, stroking percolating guitar rave-ups with shimmering harmonies. Since its release last month, "Satellite Rides" has been achieving the kind of critical mass that gets bands noticed. In addition to rave reviews in The Times, Rolling Stone and the Village Voice, the first-week sales figure doubled the first-week numbers of any previous Old 97's album, which could help the band scare up some radio airplay.
Miller defies any attempts to confine or define him. Ask the singer-guitarist about his biggest influences, and he reels off novelists David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo-protean stylists who balance dazzling craftsmanship with a generosity of sprit.
"Wallace's big agenda is that culture is funded and geared toward sales," says Miller. "What's been compromised is sentiment and heart. It's not viable to be sentimental these days. You're rendering yourself vulnerable, or run the risk of looking stupid."
It's a risk Miller's willing to take.
On terse blasts of song craft such as "Rollerskate Skinny," 'Buick City Complex" and "What I Wouldn't Do," Miller seeks intimacy and love wherever he can find it, fending off self-doubt with the solace of short-term romance. "Well, what else is there to write about?" says Miller about relationships. "If you want to write about, you know, class issues, then write an essay. It's hard for me to get passionate about anything that's not interpersonal."
The Old 97's are classic underdogs. The Dallas natives gained a rabid fan base through a punishing tour regimen that helped make them one of rock's best live acts. Still, "Too Far to Care" and "Fight Songs" sold only 40,000 and 80,000 copies, respectively. But rather than give in to radio realpolitik, the Old 97's have just fine-tuned and sharpened their sound, and Miller hopes that's enough to put them over the top.
"As we put out records, I keep thinking of career models," says Miller, 30. "When we started, I thought the Police were a good model, because they were in a subgenre-punk, but with crossover appeal-but they had a hit after their first record. Then I thought, well, maybe the Barenaked Ladies, 'cause they had a grass-roots following, but they cheated, 'cause they put out a rap song. What are we gonna do, put out a country-rap song?
"I like that someone can make a good living as a musician without having to sell out. Although, we've been accused of selling out in the past. I remember the Rolling Stone review for 'Fight Songs' accused us of being too loud and not country enough. I just thought, 'Well, who made you the rule maker?' "
As a band with tenuous ties to country music, the Old 97's have frequently found themselves in the center of debates about their commitment to alt-county's core values. It's the classic double bind of the cult band: trying to break out of the comfort zone its fans have created for it without alienating those fans in the process. But Miller dismisses such hairsplitting as beside the point.
A longtime fan of David Bowie, as well as British art-pop bands such as Blur and Belle & Sebastian, Miller has tastes that run deep and wide, and he's not afraid to channel it all into the Old 97's.
"It's belittling to classify us as alternative country, because everyone in this genre comes at it from a different angle," says Miller. "At the same time, people have to have a way to talk about music. But if Tom Petty came out with 'Damn the Torpedoes' now, he would be considered alt-country."