Music

Rhett Miller: The Instigator

Robert Jamieson

Rhett Miller

The Instigator

Label: Elektra
US Release Date: 2002-09-24
UK Release Date: Available as import
Amazon
iTunes

For nearly 10 years, Rhett Miller and his band Old 97's have defied simple categorization. Alt-country? Sure, in that they don't play the typical gag inducing country-pop-lite that engulfs the charts on a weekly basis. Americana? Sure, in that they can evoke the seedy bars or the desolate streets of small-town USA in a single verse. Pop band? With those melodies and vocal harmonies? Of course. They are all of these and more at the same time. What is certain is that the band has, much like Wilco, indulged and evolved their pop sensibilities over time. It is therefore no surprise that Rhett Miller has fully embraced his pop side on his solo debut, The Instigator.

Miller had written several songs over the years that didn't quite fit his band, and the idea of putting them out on a solo album came about. In the past few years, Rhett Miller had become friends with L.A. studio guru and musical genius Jon Brion (whose talents rate any hyperbole you can throw at him). Sitting in with Brion's songwriter circles at the fabled Largo in L.A., Miller developed several of the songs that made it onto the 97's last record, 2001's Satellite Rides. Encouraged by Brion, Miller wrote and wrote until there were 30-plus songs to choose from for a solo record. The result is one of the year's best pop albums.

While some of the songs on The Instigator could have fit nicely on the last 97's record, others are more traditional, classic pop. What has continued into the new material is Miller's lyrical style. And it can't be any better explained than by Miller himself on "This Is What I Do": "I'm gonna sing this song forever / About a girl that I once knew / And how she is always leaving / This is what I do." For a guy who was recently married, he can still delve deep into the broken-hearted angst that makes great art. Later in the same song, he reveals he really can't help himself: "I could hide it in the attic / I could bury it in static / I could only put it out in Japan." Even if he wanted to stop writing about it, he can't. Miller often makes use of simple words and sentiments in his portrayals of love and loss, sometimes to the point where his sincerity seems less than genuine. But it really isn't. He has long written honest, heartfelt words (see "Question" from Satellite Rides), And comes off too charming to question his integrity. Even during the sappiest of moments (this album's "I Want to Live"), you realize he believes his own words.

The first single, "Come Around" is as lovesick as a song gets: "I'm gonna be lonely for the rest of my life / Unless you come around." Miller's passionate vocals match Brion's lush production, as they do in the closing song, "Terrible Vision." A simple, shuffling song of percussion and acoustic guitar, Rhett's vocals are backed up and matched against Brion's. There are even some Marcy Levy-like background vocals (provided in part by comedian Karen Kilgariff) thrown in to add to the campfire sing along atmosphere. More upbeat, at least musically, is the Old 97's coulda-been, "The El", a driving, bluesy rave up covered thick with guitars.

The most beautiful song on The Instigator is "World Inside the World". A simple bass line, a strummed acoustic guitar and a delicate organ underscore Miller's words of reservation and worry (while referencing and name-checking Don Delillo and his book Underworld). It's a sullen song of hope, punctuated by Brion's gorgeous organ break. Not the only song with literary references, Miller also compares his songs about love to the love letters written by both Richard Wagner and Franz Kafka in "Our Love", the record's opening song. There is finally some reassurance in "Your Nervous Heart", a slow-burning song in which the singer's plaintive voice asks, "Can I kiss / Your furrowed brow / And calm your nervous heart?" Far from happy-go-lucky, but there is definitely warmth and hope.

Throughout The Instigator, Rhett Miller's vocals and acoustic guitar sounds more assured than in the past, due in no small part to his standing on his own outside of his band, as well as Jon Brion's producer's touch. The entire record sounds like something made by two guys having a lot of fun in the studio. Brion's musical ability show through the material almost as much as Miller's, but his ability to keep this from becoming a completely self-indulgent project is what makes this album so enjoyable. Rhett was able to work out some things for himself outside of the democracy of a band, yet still was kept on course by the ever-talented Brion. While this is by no means the end of the Old 97's, it is a good way for Miller to get his yeah-yeah's out, and to tide over fans until that band's next release. It will be interesting to see how this record affects the direction it takes.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.

Music

Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor
Film

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.

Music

Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.

Music

Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.

Music

Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.

Music

Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.

Music

Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.