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PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Bill Miller: Spirit Rain

Bill Miller
Spirit Rain
Paras Recordings

Bill Miller‘s music is artfully eclectic, in large part influenced by the traditional Native American songs he learned in his youth, but equally influenced by Dylan, Hendrix, Roy Orbison, and Pete Seeger. At times, it is even Beatlesque. It is, however, truly unique, and all Bill Miller. Spirit Rain is a wonderful blend of styles, moods, and textures.

Miller has worked with Nancy Griffith and Peter Rowan. He has shared bookings with Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, Richie Havens, and Arlo Guthrie, and has toured with Tori Amos. He is also a painter, and his work has been displayed and sold in galleries across the country.

One of the most unique and evocative sounds present on Spirit Rain is that of the Native American flute, of which Miller is a master. The album opens boldly with an instrumental called “Approaching Thunder”, on which the flute is featured, setting the stage for a musical and spiritual journey. Other instrumentals on the album, equally as soothing, and which break up any monotony that might be present, are “Red Sky Red Heart”, and “Sun Dog”, all featuring Miller’s impressive flute playing. “Sun Dog” is the more melodic of the three instrumentals and therefore the most memorable. “1st Dream” also seems to fall into this category. It is a chant and drum song performed by members of the Ho-Chunk Nation, and adds beautifully to the mysterious and spiritual aspects of this collection of songs.

The most passionate performance on Spirit Rain is “I Believe”, a simple and impassioned testament to a belief in all that is not seen, of all that exists beyond the limits of our senses, and in personal redemption. These are themes that dominate Spirit Rain. The refrain is repeated over and over at the end of the song. Finally, reaching a fevered pitch, the song concludes with Miller’s sustained vocal, bringing to mind, once more, the hollow warmth of his flute playing.

Other tracks on the album possessing a similar depth of emotion are “Never Too Far”, “Prayers for the Truth”, and “Little Brother (Spirit Rain)”. “Never Too Far” is a simple yet poignant meditation on the oneness of all life. The light tinkling of the piano winds its way through this recording, like wind chimes. “Prayers for the Truth”, co-written with John Flanagan, has a bit of that generic Nashville flair to it. That commerciality, however, ends up being more or less negated by Miller’s delivery. What, in less adept hands, could come off sounding clichéd or corny, comes off sounding honest. Miller sings, “The sound of the drum / An eagle’s wing / To my people these are sacred things / Visions of old / Hope for the new / All we ask is a prayer for the truth / All we need is the truth”. “Little Brother (Spirit Rain)” is more of a chant than a song, and is very intense. It begins with a harp-like guitar and a recording of wind, and is soon joined by the Native American flute. The vocal enters, chanting, “I am a spirit in a land so free / So free”, and is followed by cascading minor scales played ferociously on a nylon string guitar.

If one song stands out as incongruous, it is “Face the Blues”, a traditional blues tune composed by Miller. In the midst of such colorful and unique material, the blues format seems a bit mundane, and seems to hinder more than help the flow of Spirit Rain.

The album concludes with “Underneath the Blue Sky”, a song reminiscent of Seal and various artists of this ilk from more than a decade ago. Yet, it does not sound dated. This, I believe, has much to do with the crystal clear production of Bill Miller and Michael von Muchow, and the sheer honesty and passion with which these songs were performed, qualities which never go out of style.