august 2009

Rhett Miller: Wearing his bleeding heart on his sleeve, love-obsessed, gangly, held together by twining strands of heartbreak and pugnacity.

Chick Album Without a Chick

Wherein Rhett Miller milks the personae of pale ruined boy for all it's worth

By Christopher Hill

rhettmillerthumbRHETT MILLER
Rhett Miller
Shout Factory

"Indie" as a label for a band should be used in a strictly limited sense to refer to a band unaffiliated with the major labels. Used to suggest a sensibility, or a sound, the word is layered with unfortunate associations.

For instance, it's easy to say that Rhett Miller's band, the Old 97's of Dallas, Texas, have, for over a decade, been a beloved indie/alt-country fixture. And that's a shame.

Because the Old 97's aren't an indie/alt-anything band, but rather a near great rock & roll band within the broad river of tradition that flows from the Byrds. They practice certain lost arts, like the high-energy hook, that few know anymore They come on with a buzz and a whack and gorgeous melodic fillip. They command power chords and distortion as well as really from-the-heart sweet melodies and consistently diverting songwriting from frontman Rhett Miller—Miller, wearing his bleeding heart on his sleeve, love-obsessed, gangly, held together by twining strands of heartbreak and pugnacity. And there seems to be no reason for them not to sell large quantities of records. Except that their leader still seems to be a prisoner of the indie mind.

Indie cults are based on the myth of the beautiful loser, often personified in the pale ruined boy who fronts the band. As a band, the Old 97's don't seem interested in being beautiful losers. But Miller? If his new solo album is an indication, he sounds prepared to milk the personae of pale ruined boy for all it's worth.

Rhett Miller performs 'Erica the Beautiful,' the song he wrote to a girl 'to get laid' (she married him), filched from a well-known patriotic anthem. Hiro Ballroom, NYC, 3/23/07.

Of 12 cuts on the new record, 11 are heartbreak songs. So? You may say. That's pop music. But so much else stays the same from song to song on a solo record-singer, songwriter, lyricist, arranger, instrumentalist-that if the tone and mood don't vary, it starts to sound like one long song. "Nobody Says I Love You Anymore" starts things off by introducing a breathy, cracked, falsetto that Miller will use throughout to signify the voice breaking up under the stress of emotion. At first you're not certain he's serious-you can't believe no one took him aside to tell him what a cornball trope it is-but apparently no one did, 'cause it keeps showing up.

"Caroline": "I would be devastated/ Cause I feel like we could have made it." Personally, I would never use the word devastated in trying to get a girl back, but it's not really the girl's emotions that matter here. Then Miller lands the punch he knows she can't resist—-"I am my own arch-enemy." I figured he would get around to saying something like that. It's what makes an indie boy an indie boy.

"Haphazardly" is almost operatic in its grand pumping of the bathos pedals. This is where Rhett Miller gets to me, making me feel like a churl for insulting such grief. It's just that one of the things I've always liked about rock & roll is its reluctance to shamelessly milk the sentiment ducts. "This is what the bed feels like... without you in it" he struggles to say, in that any-second-now-I'm-not-gonna-be-able-to-go-on-voice, as some multi-tracked voices enter to underscore—as if we didn't know—the pitch of feeling we're supposed to be at.

"If It's Not Love"—Nicely made song, good hook, moves right along on dual strummed guitars. But what's this? "I was a desert aching for rain" More about him and his psycho-spiritual condition. "But enough about you," Rhett always seems to be saying to his beloved, before he starts getting lyrical on her.

And then, just when you think you've got this record sussed, you walk right into Rhett Miller's left hook, which I'm sure he was just relishing saving up. "Happy Birthday Don't Die" is in a tradition that goes back to "Flying Saucers Rock & Roll," songs that go planetary and sci-fi while doing nothing but banging madly on some guitars and looping a few Theremin samples. And you're smacked with what you had almost forgotten—this guy's really good. The transformation is startling-here's a man in his element, impassioned, singing with conviction, sure of the effects he wants, sure of how to get them. This guy's good.

Well, we pay for it by sitting through another four more gorgeously lachrymose confessions.

Rhett Miller, solo acoustic, performs 'The New Medium'

I guess this is a case of the men don't know but the little girls understand. Displaying one's helpless woundedness is a time-honored path past a young lady's better judgment—though not a particularly noble one. (There's a classic instance of it in Animal House.)

There's something similar in all these intimate talks Rhett is having with...whoever. Maybe that's just it—it's whoever. Not a somebody.

Miller could tell us something about her beyond the fact that she's twisting his heart like a rubber band. How about a hint of what she looks like? Hair color? Tall? Short? Does she have a sense of humor? Doe she watch a lot of television? What shows? Does she drive too fast? Been married before? Eat too much junk food? Read poetry? Smoke cigarettes? Own a firearm? It doesn't have to be much—even Neanderthals like the Kingsmen told us they "smell uh roses uh in her hair."

This is a chick album without a chick.

miller3The larger mystery here is the relationship between this rather drippy singer songwriter named Rhett Miller and the person of the same name who is the animation and the fire of a fine rock & roll band.


But the larger mystery here is the relationship between this rather drippy singer songwriter named Rhett Miller and the person of the same name who is the animation and the fire of a fine rock & roll band. I think I know an answer. Rhett Miller has made the mistake of the singer-songwriters of the late '60s and early '70s who came out to sing lullabies to kids burned out by the cataclysm of the times. The promise those singers sold to those kids was one of naïve honesty—"I will sing you nothing but the simple truth of myself, and you can rest yourself in it." The speed with which that simplicity curdled into self-absorption was a major life-lesson to anyone who was there to observe it. But it seems as if Rhett Miller the solo artist hasn't gotten beyond the first promise, the belief that I can sing straight from my heart into yours, the Plastic Ono Band fallacy. The hitch here is that it's generally more interesting to hear people sing about other people than it is to hear them sing about themselves.

No, after the Beatles and the Stones and Dylan (and others) rock and roll became a vehicle for a more complicated kind of truth-telling, one that involved irony and the fashioning of personae, and the fabrication of tales about all sorts of people. And Rhett Miller and the Old 97's intuitively understand this when they pick up their instruments. Rhett Miller becomes instinctively theatrical and three-dimensional, he starts playing a character in the context of the band, like all good rock & roll singers do. Playing the beautiful loser allows you to work in more dimensions than trying to convince us you are the beautiful loser. The righteous noise of a good rock & roll band sweeps him into itself, where he is free to play his part and sing for everyone. 

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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