Review : Rhett Miller - The Dreamer
PopmattersThe release of Rhett Miller’s fourth solo outing The Dreamer closely coincides with a similarly-minded LP: John Mayer’s pseudo-rootsy Born and Raised. Both find artists taking humbler approaches to their music, without any grandiose experimentation or theatrics. They are also, to some extent, “country” records, though Born and Raised is more 70’s California rock than country, and The Dreamer sticks to the alt-country Miller is so familiar with. But while Mayer’s newest is a depiction of a city slicker picking out the most expensive cowboy-looking clothes from a top-end Western store, Miller’s boot heels are comfortably worn in. The three recordings preceding The Dreamer were much poppier than anything Miller had done with his mainstay, the Old 97’s, but they also didn’t abandon the country stylings the Austin-born songwriter excels at. Miller doesn’t need to traverse the boundary between country singer and singer/songwriter; he does both quite admirably.
All this aside, from a quick glance at the sleeve art you might think Miller is up to business as usual. The name follows The Instigator (2002) and The Believer (2006) in having a “The _____” title, returning to the pattern broken by his self-titled (2009). (Technically, his first solo record is 1989’s Mythologies, but it’s been long out of print.) The cover features Miller’s handsome visage, staring intensely into the distance, though you could make the case that it looks like he’s stalking someone. Though he’s now forty-one, there’s a wide-eyed youthfulness both to Miller himself and to his music, the same youthfulness that made “Come Around” such a compelling single ten years ago. But what has made Miller such an intriguing, and in my view underrated, songwriter is his creativity. Any of his solo efforts could be classified as “alt-country,” though the genre name isn’t entirely apt. He’s had stadium-worthy rock riffs, introspective acoustic pontifications, and, in the case of The Instigator’s “The El”, a menacing twang. Miller as a solo artist isn’t miles removed from his main projects, nor is he leagues removed. He takes what makes his music so successful in one arena and incorporates it with other stylistics in another.
That skill of his is what makes The Dreamer a peculiar album. This is a “return to the basics” experiment of the first order; all of the tracks are straightforward cuts of alt-rock with a dash of indie. (Miller, though a convincing country musician, has a voice more akin to the indie camp.) The instrumental palette is simple, usually involving acoustic and electric guitars, a steel guitar, bass, and drums. Everything sounds great; unfortunately, very little of it sounds challenging. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with going back to the fundamentals; for some artists, it may even be necessary. For Miller, though, it isn’t; there were never any indications he was veering too far from his wheelhouse, nor was it the case that his music was becoming stale. If anything, Rhett Miller was the best thing since The Instigator, in my mind his greatest artistic statement. The Dreamer doesn’t sound like a desperately needed return to the well, like Born and Raised does for Mayer; it instead sounds like a very accomplished musician having a breezily good time. The music’s tuneful as anything he’s ever done, yes, but it lacks the punch of his best stuff....full text
ConsequenceofsoundRhett Miller was becoming a slave to the album-tour-album-tour grind, his countrified power-pop growing glossier with each subsequent release. 2001’s The Instigator was a catchy cash grab and 2006’s The Believer followed suit, and his latest work with the Old 97’s was equally f0rmulaic. Flirting with irrelevance, Miller started his own label, Maximum Sunshine Records, and began fundraising for a new solo album through the PledgeMusic initiative. The Dreamer was to be a return to form, a return to his country-rock roots.
Miller produced the album by himself using the money donated by his fanbase. The shoestring budget adds humility to Miller’s tunes, and although the album’s fidelity isn’t quite lo-fi, it sounds grizzled, homely, and honest. No more pandering to a potential audience; he’s playing for himself, his fans, and nobody else. When he sings, “I was going through a hell of a time when suddenly you showed up,” he’s a man airing his issues through song. Miller’s always been one for channeling lyrics through different characters and archetypes, but The Dreamer sounds personal.
But exactly how personal remains unclear. Miller comes off as utterly neurotic, worried about losing love when he’s smack-dab in the middle of a relationship and self-conscious when single. It’s like when you read a fictional memoir or watch a documentary and ask, “How much of this was actually lived by someone?” On “Out of Love”, he confesses, “There’s a real possibility that there’s really something wrong with me… I’m only happy singing a sad, sad song.” Or on “Sleepwalkin’”, he admits to being intimidated by the intelligence of a girl who’d “won awards and stuff.” Miller explores the psyche and soundtracks his introspection with understated twang akin to Ryan Adams’ softer moments....full text
AllmusicYou don't have to be an especially astute observer of Rhett Miller's career to notice the obvious dichotomy of his work -- as the lead singer with the Old 97's, he sings spunky, uptempo alt-country tunes with a pleasing Texas twang in his voice, while the Rhett Miller who makes solo albums makes smart pop music with an arty edge and sings with what appears to be some sort of British accent. So the big surprise in The Dreamer is this is the first Rhett Miller solo album where he's willing to let his country influences hold sway; this is a very different sort of roots-oriented music than the Old 97's, built on acoustic instruments and subdued tempos that suggest folk-rock more than the get-up-and-go mood of his band, but the guy singing is clearly the Rhett Miller on Too Far to Care rather than The Believer, as if his twin personalities have finally found common ground. Miller hasn't tossed away his slicker pop sensibilities; he's just allowed them to shake hands with his naturally twangy self, and songs like "Picture This," "This Summer Lie," and "Out of Love" are of a piece with Miller's solo work, only with arrangements that sound considerably more organic and less fussy (and with occasional interjections of steel guitar). And though "Lost Without You," "Sleepwalkin'," and "Swimmin' in Sunshine" might have felt a little too low-key in the context of an Old 97's album, they sound fine here, confirming that Rhett Miller is a first-class songwriter when his muse is with him regardless of generic restraints. And Miller's duet with Rosanne Cash on "As Close as I Came to Being Right" is a gem, one of the best realized moments of his solo career; it's the best thing on The Dreamer, but there's plenty of other music here that should earn the approval of fans of both Rhett Millers....full text
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