Music

Scott Miller & the Commonwealth: Citation

It's OK to miss the V-Roys, but Scott Miller's come a long way since then.

Former V-Roys frontman Scott Miller treads in the tradition of artists like Springsteen, Bob Seger, and John Mellencamp -- songwriters who believe in rock 'n' roll as a life-defining, almost religious experience. In fact, Miller even calls Citation's leadoff track "Summons". Sure, it's little more than the sound of musicians tuning up and banging around for around half a minute, but it still gets you thinking of muses and creative forces marshalling together.

The title also illustrates Miller's fondness for words. "Summons" could also mean to appear before court, especially since the album title, Citation, could represent tickets and legal warnings. It's more fun, though, to accept it as the Chevy Citation that Miller recalls with fondness in "Freedom's a Stranger". A tale of life's inevitable flow from backseat memories to mortgages, "Freedom's a Stranger" is also Miller's call to arms. Halfway through the song, he testifies, "If the Boss had been a preacher, he could have led us to the Lord". Later, he sums it all up by musing, "But I don't mind getting older / If you get smarter when you do / And the burdens that you shoulder / Well, that's what defines you / I’m sure they crushed the Citation / I know the 8 track broke / We're such a complicated nation / But I still got rock 'n' roll".

Throughout, Miller presents it in basic rock 'n' roll form: guitars that both ring and snarl, insistent backbeats, and occasional organ or harmonica flourishes. The quieter moments, like "Wild Things", "On a Roll", or "Long Goodnight", are nimble acoustic numbers that illustrate Miller's deft skill with vocal hooks. It's the kind of music that often gets the "meat and potatoes rock" tag, which simply means that it's straightforward and not overly busy. But it's not dumb. Miller is an artist with a deep appreciation for Russian literature, and he once pulled off the neat trick of turning the melody from Pachelbel's Canon into the barroom kiss-off "Goodnight Loser".

That intelligence especially shines in a quartet of songs at the intersection of young men's lives and war. The current war in Iraq is the obvious reference point for all four, but each looks at the issue from different perspectives. With a boogie-filled arrangement that would do Southern Culture on the Skids proud, "Jody" comes at the familiar theme of an unfaithful wife back home by addressing the GI's buddy who's one half of the cheating. Instead of rage, the narrator greets his friend with sympathy: "Oh my friend Jody / You're a lucky boy to be on top / But she's way too smart and when the problems start / it's like they're never gonna stop", concluding that Jody's "eating sugar while I'm eating sand" and that things will get back on track when he gets home, simply because that's the way they should be.

Likewise, the ugly-chord romp "8 Miles a Gallon" evolves from gas-guzzling revelry ("With a Ford 460 that's an engine pretty mean / shittin' out bolts and pissin' gasoline") to more provocative thoughts like, "to you boys all deployed, if it's me you're fighting for / I need: democracy and gasoline and worldwide rock 'n' roll / and I'm praying every day that if you make it through the battle / I don't feel so guilty about 8 miles a gallon".

He bookends those wry songs, though, with a tale of World War II-torn love, "The Only Road", which ends with soldier's death and the mourning of the woman he left behind, and a blistering take on Neil Young's "Hawks and Doves". So by the time he's done, he's covered war from the angles of relationships (both faithful and unfaithful) and from differing levels of national identity.

It's a collection of songs that's perfectly in keeping with the rest of Miller's "blue-collar" efforts (both on this disc and throughout his career), and finds him upping the ante on what you expect out of a Scott Miller disc. What's more, the whole record is just a fun listen, even if a couple of songs are more lightweight than others. It's only natural to miss the V-Roys, but since those days, he and the Commonwealth have carved out their own niche, with Miller emerging as an artist with plenty to say.

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