It’s often an afterthought when a television special becomes the catalyst for releasing a musical package associated with it, but lately these packages have become very valuable musical nuggets. One strong example was the recent 7-part PBS special celebrating the history of the blues. The resulting albums, which added up to more than 20 in total, were grabbed up rather quickly during and after the series. Now, this album has taken a turn similar to that one. Native American musician Bill Miller has been around for ages, it would seem, yet this “best of” compilation was derived mainly from Songs of the Spirit, a PBS special that featured several top rank Native American musicians and artists. Known to some as the “alter-Native” performer, this nearly 80-minute collection spans six albums and also has two live tracks taken from the World Café program.
Not one for the usual, Miller gives the listeners blocks from each album, but they are not in chronological order. Beginning with “Dreams of Wounded Knee” from 1994’s The Red Road, the open Americana sound is mixed with a singer/songwriter style in the opening. A flamenco-like approach on acoustic guitar sets the tune in motion before a series of Native American chants are heard in the distance of this engaging instrumental. “Praises” follows up with more of the chants in the foreground as the drums are constantly and rhythmically beaten. But Miller’s folk-like style is as clear and crisp as lyrical prose. Bringing to mind early country, but with an alt.country feeling, Miller delivers the first of several sonic nuggets. It’s also very hypnotic as the cries come full circle from the backing musicians. The ethereal underpinnings of “Faith of a Child” recalls Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” with its haunting keyboards and back beat. “She learned when she was young how to deal with the rejection / Cast into the world with all its standards of perfection”, he sings about a young girl with deformed legs. It also has a lot of uplifting, adult contemporary flare within, resembling Daniel Lanois or Emmylou Harris despite nearing seven minutes.
Spirit Songs: the Best of Bill Miller
US: 16 Mar 2004
UK: 10 May 2004
Miller’s circle of compadres is quite solid—whether it’s Kevin Welch or Harry Stinson acting as co-writers. The southern twang on the pretty lullaby “Listen to Me” has Texas troubadour written all over it, but Miller gives it more of a grandiose effect as a slow, deliberate ballad-cum-anthem with harmonica and guitars accentuating certain moments. “Ghostdance” isn’t as strong, but still has good traits, namely a “world” music flavor à la Canadian guitarist Jesse Cook. The first clunker of a number is the cheesy “The Sun Is Gonna Rise”, which brings a bland John Denver to mind, the strings playing too great a part in the closing credits-like tune. “Every Mountain I Climb” is another orchestrated track, but seems to stick closer to a roots-sounding framework. What works best is the simple and inviting singer/songwriter style of “Tumbleweed”, which Miller co-wrote with noted musician Peter Rowan. Taken from his Reservation Road: Live album, Miller sounds a bit like Townes Van Zandt on this particular track, at times quickly whispering the lyrics with a Southern drawl.
What makes the album so strong is that, despite several songs easily crossing the five to six-minute mark, Miller never loses the plot with any track, including the pretty and scenic “Geronimo’s Cadillac” that has more of the singer/songwriter prowess as he opens up more vocally. Another act Miller brings to mind are the BoDeans on “The Art of Survival”, which is a melodic track that rarely gets above that ‘80s breezy, Bruce Hornsby laid-back feeling. This continues on the Byrds-ish “Never Too Far”, with its ‘60s-sweet harmony pop oozing throughout. The final two tracks are live, but only “Love Sustained” stands out for its Dylan-like folk pop. Overall, this collection has a lot of nuggets from Native America’s finest genre-bending musician.