There has been a long line of “men with guitars and important things to say” ever since there were stringed instruments to pick up and shout along with. You know their names and you don’t need reminding. The best of them have voices that are as familiar as your loved ones’. The worst come and go without leaving much to which we can cling. Then there are those, like Chris Mills, who fall somewhere in between, carving out minor careers based more on determination and perseverance than unique talent. Credit Mills though for giving it the good old college try on Living In The Aftermath, an album with moments of convincing moral and social commentary that is ultimately too hit or miss to land him among America’s most important songwriting voices.
Mills released his debut album in 1998, just as the alt-country movement of the early and mid-90s was beginning to lose steam. At that point the best artists in the genre were either evolving beyond its restrictive boundaries or releasing material that wasn’t as strong as that of their primes. Despite its memorably combative title (Every Night Fight For Your Life) and a sound that mixed Americana song-craft with poppier elements, the album was perhaps unfairly tagged as a part of that fading scene and never really connected beyond the genre die-hards. Over the following 4 years a few other Mills’ records suffered similar fates and were unable to elevate him to the next level. For Mills, it was time to regroup and figure out the next move.
With Living In The Aftermath, his first album in 6 years, Mills has returned with an album that attempts to tie together the personal with the social and political. As the album title suggests, the 10 songs are mostly set in a bleak future and forewarn us of the impending doom that will surely beset those of this era of constant fear, shrinking moral values, and YouTube. The songs come populated with lost love, aliens, suicide bombers, memories, blackbirds, vampires, fireflies, and plenty of other flashing images all used to describe a heart and a world recovering from having gone haywire. A few songs work nicely, revealing a seasoned artist soldiering on, while others don’t do enough to allow Mills to stand out among the many like-minded artists working today.
So let’s start with what does work. Mills and Tony Malmone have done a bang up job with the production on Living In The Aftermath. Though probably too pristine to effectively resonate with younger listeners, there is a crisp, glossy sheen to most of these songs that should make for some radio-ready singles on adult-alternative stations (if they even still exist). The deft mixing of basic folk-rock instrumentation with pianos, organs, horn arrangements, strings, and back-up singers gives the music more weight than your average folk rock record. In fact, the music often has an appealingly orchestrated sound that makes these little songs sound bigger than they probably should. Add to that the veteran expertise of Jon Rauhouse on banjo, pedal steel, and Hawaiian guitar and you’ve got the makings of a well-rounded and professional sounding set of songs.
Although the album houses a small handful of compelling up-tempo songs, Mills proves to be at his best when he keeps things simple and straightforward. The piano-led ballad “Such A Beautiful Thing” is among the strongest tracks – a truly beautiful country waltz with sublime horns, gentle pedal steel, and violins all taking turns at the fore. “Blackbirds” works equally well with its piano and organ rising and falling in the mix over some of the album’s most vivid lyrics (“fireflies on fire in mason jars/you hung them from trees and pretended they were stars/ a thousand little lights all in your eyes/ but in the morning all those little lights had died“). Though the biggest strength of Living In The Aftermath is how comfortably this wide array of sounds fit together, one of its most successful songs is one that eschews all but the barest essentials. Album closer “Can’t Believe” features nothing but acoustic guitar and Mills cracked voice. Its unadorned arrangement ends the album in an understated, and flat out gorgeous, manner.
With the good comes the not-so-good though, and Living In The Aftermath isn’t always so successful. “Can’t Believe” notwithstanding, the album’s limitations are manifested most evidently in Mills’ singing voice. Not a particularly weak instrument in and of itself, it lacks the charisma and distinctiveness of many of his peers, falling more in line with an unremarkable contemporary like, say, Tim Easton than Will Sheff or Jeff Tweedy. Other songs lack direction altogether—”I Guess This Is Why (They Invented Goodbyes)” begins awkwardly with Mills crooning like the guy from Crash Test
Dummies and gets worse with an ill-advised left turn towards slapstick barroom honky-tonk. Then there’s “Atom Smashers,” which, on the surface, is the most immediate song of the bunch. But the driving folk-rock is doing little more than masking a never-ending stream of lyrical contrivances no doubt aimed at sounding “thought-provoking.” That I am still utterly confused by the non-message of this song after roughly two dozen listens, and uninterested in further decoding, is too bad—the song kind of rocks.
So, Chris Mills has something to say, and that’s good, even if the message is sometimes blurry and the voice indistinct. There is certainly an audience out there for this guy – he’s producing some well-crafted, competent folk-rock on Living In The Aftermath and he’s expressing some viewpoints about this crazy mixed up world that are shared by an ever-increasing percentage of the population. The problem is that so are a lot of other folks. I can’t help but remember the Josh Ritter song “The Temptation of Adam” from last year’s The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter when I listen to this album. Ritter paints a more heartbreakingly vivid and frightening picture of the aftermath of love and war over the course of that song’s four minutes than Mills does on this entire album—and in turn demonstrates the gap between top level singer-songwriters and those in the middle. And on the other side of that coin, Living In The Aftermath demonstrates the same gap.
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