I’m not really sure where to begin with Vinny Miller’s On the Block. Then again, neither was he.
Miller signed to 4AD five years ago, but just got around to releasing his debut work of … something. And having spent a solid eighteen months actually working on the album, it’s clear that the British thirty-something couldn’t bear to part with any musical concept that had entered his mind during his production period. He did what any musical packrat would do — he included them all.
If it weren’t for the fact that twelve specific tracks made up this release, it would be unclear as to what Miller actually considers a “song”; the album has nine traditional songs, two interludes and an introductory phone call between the muttering Miller and a London pirate radio station. It’s a mess of sound, really, but it’s a bloody brilliant mess at that.
Miller sounds at best like a struggling musician waiting to reveal the genius of his home-recorded debut, the secret “next big thing” who’s convinced he’ll be successful one day despite being an unknown. At worst, it’s a scattered array of channels on daytime television. No one can truly be compared to Miller, unless one imagined Pete Yorn making mad, passionate love to some faceless lead singer of an emo/screamo band while recording their screams of love on cheap at-home equipment.
Miller has a perfect level of lo-fi sound to complement his mostly acoustic ballads — a la Iron and Wine, without the beauty. But he wasn’t aiming for beauty; he once claimed that he sought a combination of beauty and energy despite that most commercial albums compromise with only one element. And though he mostly maintains the energetic half of his success formula, songs like “Breaking Out of Your Arms” or the instrumental “Afternoon Nod” are certainly make-out worthy.
The aspect of On the Block that has been most criticized is what makes Miller so much better than a number of “serious” singer/songwriters — he’s dared to experiment. Interludes “Cromagno” and “Millalude,” while blatantly pointless, aimless and free of any other purpose, are what make the singer human. Like most everyone, Miller likes to experiment with his voice when he’s home alone. The difference is that he records his efforts in the form of 36- and 40-second tracks, the first an attempt to empathize with cavewoman childbirth, the second an ideal commercial for Scope. Yes, friends, he can simultaneously sing and gargle for forty seconds straight. The circus has arrived.
Obviously, a record like this can’t be taken seriously. Or can it? Filling his album with under-produced guitar strums and uncivilized shrieks, Vinny Miller is proof that an artist can make a cluttered album and lack any idea of organization, yet still fool his audience into considering his work to be high quality. Once again, the British do it better.