Release Date: May 12, 2015
Record label: ATO
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Adult Alternative Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Country-Rock
Rhett MillerThe Traveler(ATO)Rating: 4 out of 5 stars Rhett Miller’s on a roll. Last year’s release with his veteran Old 97’s group was one of the best in their 20+ year run. Now he resumes his on again/off again solo career with another winner that further proves he is one of Americana’s most consistent and talented singer/songwriters. The Traveler follows a long line of similarly named titles such as The Instigator, The Believer, The Interpreter and The Dreamer, all of which combine to accurately describe Miller’s solo approach.
Rhett Miller writes a lot of songs. Some of them go to his band the Old 97’s. Some of them go to his solo albums. (Presumably some end up in the trash or somewhere—I can’t speak to that.) The most recent release from the Old 97’s, Most Messed Up, was an aggressive, hedonistic burst take on an adventurous lifestyle.
Rhett Miller has been dividing his time between the Old 97's and his solo career since 2002 (we'll generously overlook his 1994 indiscretion Mythologies), and he's been looking for a comfortable stylistic home since 2002's The Instigator, wavering back and forth between various approaches to pop with a vague country inflection hovering on the margins. One thing has remained constant, though -- he keeps falling for the wrong kind of women, which was funny when he was a twenty-something but is starting to seem just a bit creepy now that he's a married man in his mid-forties. Miller's sixth studio album, 2015's The Traveler, once again finds the Serial Lady Killer sharing the details of his troubles with the opposite sex, sometimes in a manner that's funny and charming ("Most in the Summertime" and "Kiss Me on the Fire Escape," both of which feel like potential singles) and sometimes leaving us no choice than to think he must know better by now ("My Little Disaster" concerns an alcoholic party girl who, if she's Miller's age, should be in the hospital by now; and in "Wicked Things" he tries to sweetly convince a woman he's no more corrupt than she is, an uncomfortable means of seduction if there ever were such a thing).
Last year’s Old 97’s record, Most Messed Up, was a raucous, ribald chronicle of abject drunkenness and reckless confessions that bristled with unpleasant personal truths. Frontman Rhett Miller continues harnessing that freewheeling honesty on his excellent new solo album, The Traveler, but casts a more forgiving eye toward unruly behavior and judgment lapses. “Wicked Things” admits to indiscretions, but the secret shame is shared between two people, while the frustrations detailed in “Escape Velocity” stem from circumstances out of the narrator’s control, and the poetic waltz “My Little Disaster” is a tender, whimsical snapshot of a misguided romantic dalliance.
Rhett Miller’s last four solo records have not strayed too far from the music he puts out with his day job as front man for The Old 97’s. In fact, a casual fan would have a tough time picking out the solo songs from a group’s tune in a blind tastes test. With The Traveler, Miller is still hoisting that flag for alternative country pretty high, but with the addition of Black Prairie (featuring members of The Decemberists) as his backing band, there is a much looser vibe with this outing.
When Rhett Miller isn’t busy churning out first-rate roots rock in his day job with Old 97s, he keeps busy with slightly more pop-oriented first-rate roots rock as a solo act. On “The Traveler,” the Texas native offers up 12 delectable, dissect-able story-songs with premium enhancements from friends like Decemberists spinoff Black Prairie and Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey of R.E.M. Miller tends to indulge his winsome side more frequently on his own, a welcome trait on “Jules” — about a woman who doesn’t need rescuing exactly, but could benefit from some lyrical love — and the sparkly acoustic jaunt “Fair Enough,” concerning the fleeting nature of a certain kind of romance.