When former V-Roy frontman Scott Miller struck out on his own with 2001’s Thus Always to Tyrants, critical response was muted. While the V-Roys carved a path for themselves as the sort of band outlets like the Austin Chronicle labeled “a southern Replacements”, Miller’s first solo studio record was anything but sloppy bar rock. Critics (and many longtime fans) didn’t exactly know what to do with the antiseptic Tyrants.
Therefore, the follow up, Upside Downside, is being billed as a return to that dirt-under-the-nails sound that made the V-Roys a crowd favorite. And while that’s not exactly true, the standout tracks here do have a little more ring around the collar. But the songs with the most obvious nod to the V-Roys’ legacy fall flat. In fact, it’s some of those acoustic-driven numbers and mid-tempo rockers — too polished and bland on Tyrants — that see Miller at his best.
Yet, if you only listen to the first two tracks on Upside Downside you’re likely to walk away disappointed. “It Didn’t Take Too Long” is paint-by-the-numbers alternative country; a little over two minutes of Old 97s-style guitar work and cheesy bar band organ, with lines like, “It didn’t take too long before we ran out of whiskey and gin”. The second track, “Raised by the Graves,” is a little more complex, yet still sounds like something any alt-country wannabe band playing a pool hall in Peoria could come up with. The intent here is obvious. Miller wants to reminds us he can still rock. Maybe. But he’s better off when he’s not trying to approximate that V-Roys sound.
“The Way”, on the other hand, is quiet departure from the previous two tracks and, while still exploring familiar No Depression themes (drinking too much, finding one’s “way” in life), its grace is still uncommon these days. The song also shows off Miller’s haggard and strained vocals, turning what would be cliché in a lesser singer’s mouth to something heartfelt and, well, honest. The kind of adjectives you expect to use describing a Scott Miller record.
But Miller doesn’t seem content to explore the quieter, more graceful side of life. Rockers “Pull Your Load” and the ridiculous “Chill, Relax Now” are tight and masterfully executed, yet tearfully boring. “Chill, Relax Now” may be the worst song Miller has ever recorded, the kind of jam you would expect out of a bad Phish cover band. The only lyrics are made up of the entire band shouting out “Chill!” and “Relax!” Ugh.
Thankfully, the record is rescued further on with the songs that make up its second half. The rolling acoustic number, “Amtrack Crescent”, is familiar territory and walks a fine line between redundancy and taut, clever musicianship. The bass and bit of electric guitar that meander in and out of the song certainly feel train-like. But, much like Miller, the song keeps chugging along, and even though you’ve traveled this terrain before, you don’t mind the trip.
“Angels Dwell” is full of soul and veers from the altcountry formula quite nicely. Patty Griffin’s angelic backing vocals add a sense of desperate urgency to the chorus that plays nicely off of Miller’s plaintive delivery on the verses. In fact, Griffin’s entrance on the beginning chorus lines “Saints Alive / Saints Be Praised” is enough to give you chills. Those who, like Nick Hornby, feel a divine presence on Rufus Wainwright’s “One Man Guy” will find something magical going on here, too.
The bluegrass mandolin of Tim O’Brien turns “Ciderville Saturday Night” into one of the up-tempo successes on Upside Downside. While there’s not much going on here sonically or lyrically (other than stealing a few pages from some long lost bluegrass textbook), O’Brien’s playing is — as always — something to behold. It even makes you wonder, coupled with “Angels Dwell”, if Miller might not be better off collaborating with someone. Anyone. “The Way” also features Griffin, while O’Brien contributes noticeably to “Amtrack Crescent”.
The slow-driving “I’ve Got A Plan”, for instance, is all Miller. And while it pretty much sums up what living in rural Massachusetts is like (slow and gray), it isn’t Miller’s strongest work. However, the argument that Miller needs to get out with his friends a little more doesn’t quite hold up on the outstanding final track, “For Jack Tymon”.
Like “Angels Dwell”, it has soulful quality and beauty that Miller can’t possibly capture with the rocking arrangements that made the V-Roys’ live shows so much fun. It’s a song full of simple wishes for a young boy as he grows up, with lines like, “May your parents be so / That they always let you grow” and “May your friends be so / That they almost feel like home”. It’s overly sentimental, yet somehow still affecting. And it ends an uneven, confused record with a dose of confidence. A clear vision for a life that has a lot of living left. Wishful thinking on our own part would certainly include more songs like this in Miller’s future.