Satellite Rides is the first great top-down-on-the-convertible spring record of 2001. From the first big beat of "King of All the World" to the final slightly creepy notes of "Nervous Guy," the record puts all the elements together, combining the cow-punk that was the band's bread and butter early on with an impressive command of power pop they developed on 1999's Fight Songs.
Guitarist Ken Bethea scrapes the E-string on his guitar to kick-start a shaken tambourine, stop-and-start chorus on the aforementioned "King..." It's a worthy successor to Fight Songs' minor hit "Murder (Or a Heart Attack)," and is the first of many hook-laden tracks.
Singer Rhett Miller has honed his songwriting skills for the new record in regular solo gigs at Largo, a Los Angeles club that regularly hosts producer/songwriter extraordinaire Jon Brion as well as artists like Elliott Smith, Aimee Mann, and Michael Penn. Miller's singer-songwriter side can be heard to best effect on the solo acoustic "Question."
But the remainder of Satellite Rides is all about a band at the peak of its powers. Bethea supplies stellar guitar work on "Rollerskate Skinny" as Miller sings in a voice that owes more to Robert Smith than Hank Williams: "I believe in love but it don't believe in me." "Buick City Complex" is a souped-up country shuffle about laid-off autoworkers drowning their sorrows by, well, getting laid: "They're tearing the Buick City Complex down/I think we're the only people left in town... Do you wanna mess around?," Miller sings. And "Bird in a Cage" is simply one of the best songs the 97's have produced, with enough hooks for three songs and another tasty Bethea guitar solo.
Bassist Murry Hammond takes over lead vocals on "Up the Devil's Pay," a lonesome cowboy yodel with nice harmonies from Miller. "Am I Too Late" is a country rave-up that manages to sound like both a quintessential Old 97's tune and some resurrected bluegrass standard.
Hammond returns for another vocal turn on "Can't Get a Line," an inspired bit of handclap and tambourine Beatle-pop. "Designs On You" is a masterfully catchy number on which Miller sings wittily about lusting after an about-to-be-married woman: "You can go ahead and get married/And this'll be our secret thing/I won't tell a soul/Except the people in the nightclub where I sing." "Book Of Poems" rocks like nobody's business. And the record concludes with the paranoid paramour of "Nervous Guy."
Initial copies of the record come with a bonus disc that includes smoking live versions of concert staples like "Barrier Reef" and "Timebomb," as well as a studio outtake, "Singular Girl," that quotes T-Rex to amusing effect and which has already amassed a bit of a cult following.
Satellite Rides gets the balance right between pop sophistication and country roots, between Miller's wise ass charm and Bethea's rocking guitar, between witty wordplay and exuberant musicianship. Satellite Rides is another career highlight for this talented Dallas-based outfit. It's one heck of a ride, top down or no.