Scott Miller and the Commonwealth: Upside Downside

Mitch Pugh

Scott Miller and the Commonwealth

Upside Downside

Label: Sugar Hill
US Release Date: 2003-06-10
UK Release Date: 2003-06-23

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.





Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?


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 .


Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.


IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.


Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.


NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.


The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.


PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.


David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

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