When Miller sticks to what he’s good at, he is a marvel.
Andrew Mueller 2009
One of the many reasons that The Old 97s are such a great band is that they’ve always sounded slightly like frontman and primary songwriter Rhett Miller joined the wrong group by accident. The Old 97s are, as a collective, fundamentally fairly orthodox cowpunkers, bent on filling classic country templates with angry guitars and juddering drums. Miller, on his own account, is clearly largely animated by a love for songwriterly pop. His three prior solo albums – erratic, unfocused affairs – have been infused by such distinctively un-country influences as Ray Davies, Pete Shelley and Paul Weller.
The audaciously titled Rhett Miller is the Rhett Miller album that sounds most like an Old 97s album – which makes it, by some margin, Rhett Miller’s best Rhett Miller album yet. He seems to have found a way to resist whatever pressures he felt to starkly delineate his own records from those of his band. It is telling that the only dud moment on the album – the wretchedly overwrought, Bauhaus-ish science fiction hallucination Happy Birthday Don’t Die – is also the only one in which Miller sounds like he’s trying too hard to be someone other than himself.
When Miller sticks to what he’s good at – setting witty, oblique tales of everyday bewilderment to deceptively subtle not-quite-country tunes – he is, as ever, a marvel. Caroline, If It’s Not Love and I Need to Know Where I Stand are adroit negotiations between Miller’s competing loves for country and pop, riddled with characteristically waspish couplets (the latter, in particular, can only prompt amazement that it has taken this long for someone to rhyme “analysis” with “paralysis”). The wilfully underplayed closing tracks, Lashes and Sometimes, are all the more affecting for Miller’s deliberate short-circuiting of his innate cleverness and playing it straight-faced.
Nothing, however, will gladden the bruised heart of anyone familiar with Miller’s songwriting like the triumphant opening line of tears-in-the-beer lament Another Girlfriend: “The trouble with girls like you…” It would have been a better title for a fine album.