Review: Rhett Miller

Rhett Miller first came onto many music fans’ radars as the leader of OLD 97’S, a standard-bearer of “alt country”… a genre known for taking the decidedly anti-intellectual genres of country & western and infusing them with inventive, literate lyrics and complex musical arrangements. The band moved into poppier and increasing eclectic sounds as they matured. Rhett’s solo record continues this forward momentum, scarcely giving good ol’ shitkickin’ country a second glance in the rearview.

Instead, Rhett rewards listeners with a collage of sixties “pure pop” sounds that would please millennials, boomers and even vinyl obsessed X-ers. His catchy power pop songs feature low-key vocals dispensing ultra-clever, misanthropic lyrics about love gone sideways (and was it worth the trouble?), set in sharp relief against lush, dense, evocative production. There’s some Beach Boys here, some Dylan, there, the Beatles everywhere. Inventive instrumentation keeps each track fresh. The first few songs are shiny and bright… then some fuzz guitar enters, allowing for some grit, making a few songs sound like lost “Nuggets” tracks. Far beyond a pastiche, Rhett makes his references serve his own statements in an authentic way.

The album’s midpoint, “Bonfire” is a delicate, spaced-out ballad that brings Syd Barrett to mind, seemingly ushering in a softer, more earnest, less complicated (but no less thought out) back half to the album. There, the “Topanga Canyon sound” of Graham Parsons has a run-in with the English show bands that inspired Sgt. Pepper’s on “Another Girlfriend”, and folkier flavors give room for more hopeful and redemptive love songs to bloom, making way for “Sometimes”, a sweet, unabashedly romantic paean to the power of music and the belief in everlasting love… an earnest denouement to a work that began with a brash odes to the power of pessimism.