One of the unspoken rules of country is this: Don’t go pop. (It may even be a spoken rule.) This is all the more true in the urbane offshoot that is alt-country. Aware that its spot in the pantheon is tenuous as is, the hipster-heavy subgenre loves to take potshots at the apostates.
Which is why Rhett Miller, a native Texan in a sea of transplants and — thanks to the early records from his band, Old 97’s — a onetime hero of the movement, has been a marked man since the band released Fight Songs in 1999. The album was damn catchy — pretty, even — and that’s a no-no. In 2002, Miller raised even more eyebrows with The Instigator, his solo debut. Not only was the LP again packed with blasphemously tuneful pop hooks, but its kindergarten ironics and DeLillo refs just struck too close to home for the Austin set.
Miller didn’t appear concerned then, and he doesn’t now on his second solo effort, The Believer. There’s Rhett on the album cover, ensconced in a purple velvet suit and looking the troubadour. Flip open the booklet and see him posing in a brick-red number (dude owns two velvet suits). Peer closely at the album’s acknowledgments and find him preciously thanking Camus.
Playing the superior sumbitch is anathema to the country ethic, so all this properly introduces an album that sticks to the mold of its hook-y predecessor. First, just as The Instigator swelled with twee laments (if the early 97’s got lovesick, this Miller gets love tummy aches), The Believer makes hay out of the eternal mysteries of Woman. She’s loving our hero one minute (“Sex in wartime is sweeter than peace/ Yeah, it’s the one sweet thing about war”), she’s befuddling him the next (“Talking to you, girl, is like long division”). And while there’s a certain toothy charm to these analogies, they’re stilted by the fact that we’re amused by Miller’s travails more often than we’re rooting for him. Maybe it’s because we remember how he betrayed us.
But The Believer also inherits The Instigator‘s craftsmanship. The majority of these tracks are almost aggravatingly well-built ditties, ascending again and again from minor-key verse to graceful, resolute chorus. “Help Me, Suzanne” packs enough Texas twang to (nearly) satiate the diehards, while “Meteor Shower” punctures our sneer with its genuinely pained refrain. Both tracks evidence The Believer‘s one major amendment to The Instigator‘s sound: the influx of Jon Brion‘s baroque-pop layers (tinkling pianos, chamberlain strings), which flutter out more comfortably than you’d expect. Because at its base, this is just lush and lovely L.A. pop, and you’d have little truck with it if you hadn’t heard that was a problem.
Rhett Miller Web site (streaming audio/video)