Music

Rhett Miller: The Dreamer

The return-to-roots exercise that is The Dreamer isn't bad; it just seems unnecessary.


Rhett Miller

The Dreamer

Label: Maximum Sunshine
US Release Date: 2012-06-05
UK Release Date: 2012-06-11
Label website
Artist website
Amazon
iTunes

The release of Rhett Miller's fourth solo outing The Dreamer closely coincides with a similarly-minded LP: John Mayer's pseudo-rootsy Born and Raised. Both find artists taking humbler approaches to their music, without any grandiose experimentation or theatrics. They are also, to some extent, "country" records, though Born and Raised is more 70's California rock than country, and The Dreamer sticks to the alt-country Miller is so familiar with. But while Mayer's newest is a depiction of a city slicker picking out the most expensive cowboy-looking clothes from a top-end Western store, Miller's boot heels are comfortably worn in. The three recordings preceding The Dreamer were much poppier than anything Miller had done with his mainstay, the Old 97's, but they also didn't abandon the country stylings the Austin-born songwriter excels at. Miller doesn't need to traverse the boundary between country singer and singer/songwriter; he does both quite admirably.

All this aside, from a quick glance at the sleeve art you might think Miller is up to business as usual. The name follows The Instigator (2002) and The Believer (2006) in having a "The _____" title, returning to the pattern broken by his self-titled (2009). (Technically, his first solo record is 1989's Mythologies, but it's been long out of print.) The cover features Miller's handsome visage, staring intensely into the distance, though you could make the case that it looks like he's stalking someone. Though he's now forty-one, there's a wide-eyed youthfulness both to Miller himself and to his music, the same youthfulness that made "Come Around" such a compelling single ten years ago. But what has made Miller such an intriguing, and in my view underrated, songwriter is his creativity. Any of his solo efforts could be classified as "alt-country," though the genre name isn't entirely apt. He's had stadium-worthy rock riffs, introspective acoustic pontifications, and, in the case of The Instigator's "The El", a menacing twang. Miller as a solo artist isn't miles removed from his main projects, nor is he leagues removed. He takes what makes his music so successful in one arena and incorporates it with other stylistics in another.

That skill of his is what makes The Dreamer a peculiar album. This is a "return to the basics" experiment of the first order; all of the tracks are straightforward cuts of alt-rock with a dash of indie. (Miller, though a convincing country musician, has a voice more akin to the indie camp.) The instrumental palette is simple, usually involving acoustic and electric guitars, a steel guitar, bass, and drums. Everything sounds great; unfortunately, very little of it sounds challenging. There isn't anything inherently wrong with going back to the fundamentals; for some artists, it may even be necessary. For Miller, though, it isn't; there were never any indications he was veering too far from his wheelhouse, nor was it the case that his music was becoming stale. If anything, Rhett Miller was the best thing since The Instigator, in my mind his greatest artistic statement. The Dreamer doesn't sound like a desperately needed return to the well, like Born and Raised does for Mayer; it instead sounds like a very accomplished musician having a breezily good time. The music's tuneful as anything he's ever done, yes, but it lacks the punch of his best stuff.

Still, for fans of Miller or the Old '97's this is definitely worth checking out. His lyrics are as witty as ever; the line "She had a prominent nose / She took off all her clothes" may sound ridiculous when taken out of context, but the fact it works in "Sleepwalkin'" is a testament to Miller's lyricism. Equally as strong as these quotables is the music itself, which makes up for its simplicity with its great hooks. The Margaritaville shuffle of "This Summer Lie" is a must for beach playlists, as is the quiet, unaccompanied acoustic strummer "Marina". Best of all is "Swimmin' in Sunshine," which starts off as an an optimistic ode, only to then build into an introspective bridge with the simple but poignant plea, "What do I know about love?" Here Miller uses the campfire-chorus backing that made "Terrible Vision", the final cut off of The Instigator", so memorable. It's moments like these that reveal the glimmers of Miller's genius amidst the uncharacteristically laid-back songwriting that doesn't fully demonstrate his talent.

In the end, the return-to-roots exercise that is The Dreamer isn't bad; it just seems unnecessary. This is a good album; on a song by song basis, I'd even venture to say it's great. But given what Miller has shown us in the past, this can't help but feel like second-rate. He demonstrates here his ability to write a great alt-country song, but we already knew that about him. The Dreamer is not the sound of a complete 180, but it also isn't the sound of Miller moving forward artistically.

6

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7
Music

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image