There is a surefooted ease in most everything Rhett Miller puts his voice and guitar to. Fronting propulsive alt-country rockers Old 97s, or on the three solo albums previous to his latest self-titled release, Miller’s songs -- “Our Love,” “The El” from 2002's The Instigator; “Singular Girl” from 2006's The Believer -- are shining, concise displays of relentlessly catchy pop-rock hooks and witty lyrics. Nothing too emotional, nothing too slow, but still substantial, in the way the best pop songs are.
It’s the confidence Miller has inspired in his listeners -- proven by impassioned solo shows -- that makes his new record such a disappointment. Never as strong on album as on stage, Rhett Miller fails simply by not grasping Miller’s excitable and intelligent enthusiasm. Instead, his bare energy is surrounded with a fully arranged studio-sheen that strips the grit from each song’s heart.
Love, intelligence, and humor, staples of his songwriting style, coalesce in “Another Girlfriend,” though the lyrics -- “The trouble with being in love/ Is that it’s so awfully hard to get out of/ You might as well be in jail” -- are rendered mostly ineffective by the dreary, by-the-book country arrangement. “Refusing Temptation,” “Lashes,” and “Bonfire” similarly center on tender lyrics and a conventional country approach. Pleasant, sure, but underwhelming.
With just an acoustic guitar, Miller’s solo performances are perfect showcases for his excitable nature and imitable swagger. “I Need to Know Where I Stand,” “Happy Birthday Don’t Die,” and “Caroline” attempt to capture that energy, and succeed to a degree. Miller has the voice to support the songs and the talent to write a whole sturdy catalog of them. But with the bravado and confidence he’s shown in the past, the problem is one of volume. With so much to say, much of Rhett Miller feels muted.
Rhett Miller first appeared on the music world’s radar with the Old 97’s, where he developed a knack for matching depressing sentiments with upbeat melodies. Rhett Miller, his fourth solo album, pushes this technique to the extreme. Miller, dealing the with the death of his grandmother and “idol” David Foster Wallace, promises “a few rays of sunshine,” but that there “is a lot of deep night.”
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