Nervous guy

Rhett Miller’s anxious and irresistible pop songs
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  March 24, 2010

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A BUMBLING CHARMER Rhett Miller.

In his better solo songs and the majority of the material he’s made with the alt-country band Old 97’s, Rhett Miller is a big-mouthed wannabe playboy on the verge of collapse. He sings come-ons wrought from cheeky platitudes — on “Barrier Reef,” from the 1997 Old 97’s album Too Far to Care (Elektra), he introduces himself as “Stuart Ransom Miller . . . a serial ladykiller” and then goes “through the motions with her/her on top, and me on liquor.” When these dalliances fall apart, as they always seem to, Miller’s heartache is severe. “What’s so good about a good times band,” he asks at the end of that song, “when you’re working on a broken man?”

Miller, now 38 years old, comes to the Stone Mountain Arts Center on Friday to promote his latest solo album, a self-titled 2009 release on Shout! Factory. The LP, probably his best (if most mannered) solo release yet, is a testament to another tired notion: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Still rail-thin and sporting an unfashionably long (yet somehow fashionable) haircut, Miller’s now married with two kids and sings in humbler tones than he once did. The suicidal tendencies of his early lyrics continue to pop up here and there, but they’re more academic than fatalistic. (He cites the deaths of Elliott Smith and David Foster Wallace as major influences on his last two releases; a journalistic talking point of his early works was Miller’s own suicide attempt, at the age of 14.) He doesn’t sing so much about endless benders and pining after women anymore, but he’s still an inveterate, literate, and bumbling charmer.

The singer perfected his technique in the heyday of the Old 97’s, which most peg from Too Far to Care through 2001’s Satellite Rides (Elektra), albums released concurrently with the Whiskeytown/Drive-By Truckers-led onset of alt-country. His lyrics are nestled in an irresistible sweet spot between singularity and universality. “Streets of Where I’m From,” from Too Far to Care, bulldozes through a path of cliches, embracing some and upending others: “I’ve been had/Well, at least that’s how it looks/And it’s not funny like on TV/And it’s not smart like it is in books/And I wonder, yeah I wonder how the world keeps spinning ’round/Where’s a boy with bad intentions gonna settle down?” Such stretches, ostensibly laced with irony, are instead delivered in gushy, drunken confessional bursts. It’s as though Miller is digging through crates of Hank Williams records to find the words that best match up with his protagonists’ woes, and then adjusting or amending those that don’t quite fit.

Satellite Rides found the Old 97’s edging away from country twang (as they’ve continued to do) and devil-may-care rollick and towards slick guitar pop; Miller’s bons mots were still witty (“You can go ahead and get married, and this’ll be our secret thing/I won’t tell a soul except the people in the nightclubs where I sing”), but came out with a noticeably sobered sincerity. The band’s biggest commercial hit to date, the album coincided with (or perhaps caused) a reboot of Miller’s solo career, which began with a single-packed album (2002’s The Instigator, on Elektra) and continued with 2006’s spotty The Believer, an album that seemed almost self-consciously Beatlesque (produced by Jon Brion, a master of the form) and was both aided and hindered by the inclusion of revamped recordings of Old 97’s favorites.

His latest album is both his most comfortable and ambitious solo release. No longer telegraphing his jokes with abandon, a muted line like “she wanted things that I couldn’t afford/Like a house filled with laughter every night,” from “Like Love” (which takes some guitar cues from ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky”) prompts a double-take and a quick rewind. Later, the audacious punk setup of “Happy Birthday Don’t Die,” beholden to one-time collaborator Robyn Hitchcock, reveals that Miller still has plenty of influences to mine in a career that — whether reckless and lovelorn or mature and questioning — remains devoted to the pursuit of the perfect pop song.

Christopher Gray can be reached atcgray@phx.com.

RHETT MILLER | at Stone Mountain Arts Center, Brownfield | March 26 @ 8 pm | $20 | stonemountainartscenter.com

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