Old 97’s leader Rhett Miller has a real knack for taking lyrically dark material, and setting it to a upbeat tune. He takes that ability to a whole new level of his self-titled fourth solo album (Shout Factory). Miller has a real Elvis Costello-like way with melody, and slightly skewed, occasionally acerbic lyrics. In other words, he’s more than just another pretty face with a great head of hair. That said, he does have some nice hair.
This time out, Miller’s darkness was created by the death of his grandmother, along with the suicide of his hero, writer David Foster Wallace. In “Like Love,” Miller sings that the girl of his dreams “wanted things that I couldn’t afford, like love.” But don’t despair, he soon finds another girl of his dreams to take her place.
Miller claims that the bizarre tale that is “Happy Birthday Don’t Die” was all there in his head when he woke up on the morning that he was headed to Texas to make the album. The sci-fi inspired story seems to have something to do with a little old lady who is buried in the catacombs of a colony planet, and is celebrating her 100th birthday by dying. Typical, right?
The album’s best track is a little gem called “If It’s Not Love.” “Now the whole situation, went to hell an hour late. Are you on the side of reason, or is your heart made out of hate,” wonders Miller before stating “you make a great big deal out of nothing, and then you cut me down to size.” All of this drama plays out over a stomping beat and chiming electric guitars before giving way to a drop dead perfect chorus in which Miller says, “if you’re not gonna be the one, you’re gonna be the one I miss.” Or what about “Another Girlfriend,” in which Miller boasts “the last thing I need, is another girlfriend. Two is enough, for me. Two is enough, and you would make three.” Clever stuff.
Miller has a great foil in producer and multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion, who plays guitar and bass on all 12 tracks. The production is simple, clean, and relatively unadorned by any sort of flourishes, which allows the songs to stand on their own. the rest of the assembled team includes the Apples in Stereo’s John Dufilho on drums and Billy Harvey on guitar.
There is no wheel reinvention going on here, but if the idea of 12 well-written, cleanly produced songs that melodically deny their own dark roots appeals, Rhett Miller is for you.