Many have practiced the difficult but not insurmountable task of the solo artist distancing himself from the band for which he is generally known. Diana Ross and Michael Jackson are among the most successful, having had even more acclaim after striking out on their own. Ian McCulloch, Tim Booth and Frank Black, while maybe not receiving the massive cult acclaim they received with their respective bands, had moderately successful solo stints. Some are harder to peg such as Morrissey, having hordes of fans and truly memorable and accomplished work, yet maybe not as much success as labels would have originally hoped. Most of the above listed artists, however, didn’t stray too far from the pastures that provided the pre- and post- incarnations. In other words, it’s fairly easy to like the latter if you enjoy the former. And then there’s Rhett Miller. The pretty poster boy for alt-country isn’t new to the solo circuit having released both 1994’s folk-tinged Mythologies and 2002’s `pop debut’ The Instigator which received mixed reviews due to its noticeable distance from the energetic alt-country runaway train that is the Old 97’s. But those who reviewed it favorably found something that I also discovered with Miller’s latest release, The Believer: that it is a refreshing pop gem, most likely to be cherished further as time goes on, unheralded in its time, but destined for future reverence.
For some odd reason, the alt-country diehards are a funny bunch. Whenever someone strays from the flock, (i.e. Ryan Adams from Whiskeytown, and even some, but definitely not all, of the Jeff Tweedy fans when it comes to later albums and Loose Fur material) they get their panties in a bunch and can’t bear the transformation. In spite of this or maybe because of it, Miller enlisted the production help of one George Drakoulias, the Def American whiz behind the Jayhawks and the Black Crowes on the alt-country side, but also various British alternative acts such as Ride and Kula Shaker. The band of musicians backing Miller is also a mixed bag, with the legendary (and Instigator producer) Jon Brion providing numerous instruments, the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris adding background vocals, and accomplished session musicians from both the `serious’ side in Matt Chamberlain and Patrick Warren, to the `more popular’ side in Josh Schwartz and Lyle Workman. But what all of these people provide together is one tight package of pop sensibility and mature songwriting that will either impress or disappoint its listeners, putting myself in the former category.
The Believer is an album filled with music by which to fall in love. The gorgeous Beatlesque melodies of “Meteor Shower” and “Brand New Way” could lead any casual fling to a serious relationship if included on a mix CD. “Ain’t That Strange” gives credence to Miller’s claim that the album has songs that sound like “George Gershwin doing T. Rex’s The Slider, as its glammy core is flourished with harmonic elegance. “I Believe She’s Lying” is a stunning track penned by Aimee Mann and Jon Brion, though if I had to guess which song they wrote for the album without forethought, it might not have been this surprising piece of Beulah meets Jackson Browne splendor. One of the true gems on the album is Miller’s duet with Rachel Yamagata called “Fireflies.” This depiction of a love born too young, heading towards disaster, and its demise heartbreakingly owned by both singers is one of the best songs of the year, hearkening back to the days of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. The title track is Miller’s ode to Elliott Smith, making lyrical references to his song “Happiness.” In the glut of Smith tributes, this one stands out as being one of the most tender and touching while not having to try and emulate the singular artist.
The Believer may only have a few tracks that resemble the Old 97’s, including the slower “Fireflies” and the `cover’ of “The Question,” an acoustic ballad about engagement. Rhett describes the album as songs about “sex, war, love and death…but mostly sex,” but I say mostly love. Love in all its forms finds its way into every track, whether young love, lost love, or the love of great pop music. The Believer is an album that will definitely continue to distance Miller from his other, more famous gig, but it is also one that will showcase the artist as a truly gifted singer / songwriter, capable of sweetness, subtlety, sorrow and wonder (sorry about that alliterative train wreck, not unlike the wreck that spawned the song which gave Miller’s band its name). Being a fan of great pop music, singer / songwriters, and the Old 97’s, The Believer had to be something extraordinary to catch my attention, but as it will for many, it made a believer out of me.
Jon Brion – Meaningless
Jackson Browne – Running on Empty
Beulah – Yoko