Release Date: Jun 5, 2012
Record label: Maximum Sunshine
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Adult Alternative Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Country-Rock
There are flashier singer-songwriters than Rhett Miller. But are there better ones? On his fifth solo album, the alt-country stalwart delivers 13 sharp, shapely roots-rock songs, with flashes of surf rock and Brill Building pop surfacing amid the usual twang. As frontman of the Old 97's, Miller always sounded like an old soul; now, at 41, he wears his hard-won wisdom like a pair of old jeans.
Rhett Miller has taken great care in the last decade to keep his solo albums and those recorded with his rowdier, more country-influenced band the Old 97’s as two distinctly separate bodies of work. When not flanked by his alt-country bandmates, Miller embraces his more sumptuous and orchestral tendencies, often veering closer to the chamber-pop largesse of artists like Rufus Wainwright or Andrew Bird. Yet on fifth album The Dreamer, Miller has gone back to basics, re-tuning his country twang and swapping his string sections for lap steel and a trusty six-string acoustic.
Rhett Miller’s solo career actually goes back farther than his nearly two decades as frontman for the Old 97’s. The songwriter’s 1989 debut Mythologies is a pubescent preamble to Stewart Ransom Miller’s future “serial lady killer” status immortalized in the 97’s classic “Barrier Reef.” It’s an unassuming, yet promising, record that has achieved more cult status than being seen as any sort of lost gem. Another 13 years would pass before Miller released his next solo album The Instigator in 2002.
You don't have to be an especially astute observer of Rhett Miller's career to notice the obvious dichotomy of his work -- as the lead singer with the Old 97's, he sings spunky, uptempo alt-country tunes with a pleasing Texas twang in his voice, while the Rhett Miller who makes solo albums makes smart pop music with an arty edge and sings with what appears to be some sort of British accent. So the big surprise in The Dreamer is this is the first Rhett Miller solo album where he's willing to let his country influences hold sway; this is a very different sort of roots-oriented music than the Old 97's, built on acoustic instruments and subdued tempos that suggest folk-rock more than the get-up-and-go mood of his band, but the guy singing is clearly the Rhett Miller on Too Far to Care rather than The Believer, as if his twin personalities have finally found common ground. Miller hasn't tossed away his slicker pop sensibilities; he's just allowed them to shake hands with his naturally twangy self, and songs like "Picture This," "This Summer Lie," and "Out of Love" are of a piece with Miller's solo work, only with arrangements that sound considerably more organic and less fussy (and with occasional interjections of steel guitar).
The release of Rhett Miller’s fourth solo outing The Dreamer closely coincides with a similarly-minded LP: John Mayer’s pseudo-rootsy Born and Raised. Both find artists taking humbler approaches to their music, without any grandiose experimentation or theatrics. They are also, to some extent, “country” records, though Born and Raised is more 70’s California rock than country, and The Dreamer sticks to the alt-country Miller is so familiar with.
Rhett Miller was becoming a slave to the album-tour-album-tour grind, his countrified power-pop growing glossier with each subsequent release. 2001’s The Instigator was a catchy cash grab and 2006’s The Believer followed suit, and his latest work with the Old 97’s was equally f0rmulaic. Flirting with irrelevance, Miller started his own label, Maximum Sunshine Records, and began fundraising for a new solo album through the PledgeMusic initiative.
The difference between Rhett Miller the solo artist and Rhett Miller the singer for the Old 97's is subtle. A turn toward a more twang-infused sound on his sixth solo disc makes the distinction even more elusive. Readily apparent is that his work away from the band tends toward the delicate, a folk-pop blend with the occasional, undeniably ingenious couplet that's become his trademark.
Until now, this alt-country veteran has reserved his pop-rock side for his solo albums and his country side for releases with Old 97’s. But that band has long treated country much as the Byrds or even the Beatles did, fortifying sentimental old forms with spry sounds and wry sensibilities. So Miller’s fourth solo album in a decade — his first self-produced and self-released — is perhaps his most genuinely rustic.