Music

Rhett Miller: The Believer

Oh, Rhett! Talented Old 97s singer-songwriter finds himself caught up in an overproduced album of pop-by-numbers.


Rhett Miller

The Believer

Label: Verve Forecast
US Release Date: 2006-02-28
UK Release Date: 2006-02-28
iTunes affiliate
Amazon affiliate
Amazon
iTunes

When Rhett Miller is fronting his alt-country band the Old 97s, he is many things: Texan sex God, drunken lonesome cowboy, hopeless romantic. He is magnetic and charming, his band relentless and gritty. Rhett Miller solo is something else. He retains his charm and good looks, but the grit and mischief are gone. He is more Elton John than Johnny Cash, and the dirt and sweat of the Old 97s is replaced by so much polish it could cause blindness. From Rhett's brooding photos in a velvet suit to the album's clear, right-angled guitars, his second solo record, The Believer (his first, The Instigator, was released in 2002), is all studio sheen and mature, radio-ready pop. "You can tell it to the radio/Tell it to the television," he sings in the Old 97s-penned "Singular Girl," "They are not listening/They are only machines." Lyrics like this imply that Rhett doesn't give a damn about commercial success, but The Believer nonetheless feels like he's either lusting after the mainstream pop world or being held hostage by his producer.

"Singular Girl" is one of the finer tracks on the album, partly because it was originally written and recorded with the Old 97s in 2000 as an outtake from Satellite Rides (the demo was released on a bonus CD with select copies). So perhaps the anti-commercial sentiment expressed therein is indeed long forgotten. Miller's decision to include "Singular Girl" and "Question," a popular song from the same album, on The Believer is perplexing. He teases us with these snippets of greatness, but instead of perfecting them, he tosses them into the studio machine and turns them into mechanical hits. The original "Question" was beautiful and understated, a simple song about a man proposing that bordered on cheesy. But it's a fine, aged cheddar compared to the microwaved Cheez Whiz of the new version, complete with plunkety piano and swelling strings. Perhaps Miller wanted to demonstrate a newfound maturity, or emphasize his band's place in the songwriting canon, but most likely he wanted to resurrect his most accessible material for a shot at commercial success. This seems unnecessary and exploitative, however, and undermines Miller's confidence in his solo work.

The album opens with a slew of mediocre, bouncy rockers that glide like butter through their formulas. "Help Me, Suzanne," is a bit too similar to The Instigator's pop charmer "This Is What I Do," and "I Believe She's Lying" is frighteningly close to being a Gin Blossoms tune. "Fireflies," a duet with sultry songstress Rachel Yamagata, is the hands-down best song on the album, suggesting that Miller really does need a fellow songwriter to bring out his passion. A wrenching country riff swells like a humid night as Miller and Yamagata sing riveting lyrics like, "I'm gonna sleep on the train tracks/It's gonna be a peaceful night/Then it's gonna get rough," and the chorus: "Never say/You'll never leave/'Cause you'll never know 'til you try/In a jar/Fireflies/Only last for one night." This is the Rhett we know and love, and I find myself begging him not to disappear. "Singular Girl" hangs onto a bit of him, but is too smooth to be as good as the original demo and leaves out some of its best lyrics ("You've got the teeth of the hydra upon you").

"The Believer" is the song the album centers around, and Miller composed it for his friend, the late Elliott Smith. He also weaves in the pain of his own teenage suicide attempt. The song begins with a quiet and intriguing verse, but unfortunately sails into modern rock guitars, ruining the gentle affect of the lyrics. It's not entirely Miller's fault; you get the sense that no one he was working with on this record was into the "less is more" idea. But it's a damn shame, because Miller is a good singer, a clever lyricist, and a master of melody. The Believer would never have been as fun as an Old 97s record, but even if recorded just on a 4-track, this album could really be something. Unfortunately, the music gets bogged down with strings and other symptoms of overproduction. That is, in a nutshell, the problem with pop music these days. The studios can't let it speak for itself, so it ends up not speaking at all. Remember this next time, Rhett: they aren't listening, they're only machines.

5

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.