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Rhett Miller, The Instigator

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Breathes there a fan of group-centered rock ‘n’ roll who hasn’t felt a shudder of apprehension upon reading the words “solo side project“?
Ever since Paulie McCartney lied and told us life was just a bowl of cherries, solo elpees have been portents of doom for devotees of beloved rock groups. So it was that this fan found himself nervously approaching Rhett Miller’s new The Instigator (Elektra). As frontman for the Texas based Old 97’s, Miller was the melodically mournful bellow behind my favorite disc of 2001, Satellite Rides: a practically perfect collection of guitar-based country-tined pop-rock packed w./ power and yearning. In the Pop World of my imagination, Rides‘ songs of neo-bohos and their wasted relationships comprised my own personal Hit Parade.
Not all 97’s fans share my love for this disc, of course. Starting as a firm alt-country group on that great dissipated indy label, Bloodshot, the band pursued a purer cow-punk sound. With their major label move, however, Miller and the boys began to incorporate more mainstream pop sounds – to the dismay of purists, even if songs like “Oppenheimer” or “Buick City Complex” were among the best the group had ever recorded. If nothing else, the band has refused to stand still.
Which brings us to The Instigator: twelve good Miller songs done with our hero on acoustic and all-purpose pop maven Jon Brion (the man who gave Fiona Apple her deservedly big-selling album) filling in the gaps. Lots of strumming folk-rock sounds instead of the Old 97’s Texas thrash: not as overwhelming but still full of energy, even if the guitar fuzz is mixed down. As times I hear the rollick of Paul Westerberg; other moments, the ultra-ruminative Nick Lowe – but neither songwriter currently possesses Miller’s keen lyrical eyes.

Much of Instigator‘s songs revolve around ruined relationships (“This Is What I Do” neatly encapsulates a personal history of blown affairs w./ stick-legged girls), but midpoint through the disc Miller gives us more optimistic fare. “Four-Eyed Girl” finds the singer bragging about his girlfriend’s smarts (“I’m a rock ‘n’ roller/She’s a Science teacher”), while the pure pop “Hover” has him singing in amazement, “I can’t believe that you’re my lover.” In Miller’s world-inside-the-world, even a history of fractured one-on-ones is no reason to give up hope.
Miller has stated in interviews that the songs on this disc were done solo because they didn’t sound like Old 97’s material to him. On some cuts (opener “Our Love” and the most openly country number, “The El,” in particular), I don’t know what he’s talking about, though others clearly take from sounds outside his group’s repertoire. “I Want to Live” has pre-punk-style guitar blasts, while “Terrible Vision” even includes a chick chorus doin’ background awwws. “Port Shirley” adds psychedelic eccentric Robyn Hitchcock on guitar and backing vocals, a musical move far from the earthier 97’s.
So . . . should I be worrying? According to the fansites, the Old 97’s are still intact, but I’m still holding judgment for now. First single “Come Around” is getting pushed on VH-1, which has the potential of putting Rhett ahead of his cohorts if it takes off. And so we 97’s fans are placed in the uncomfortable position of wishing its frontman good fortune – but not too much good fortune . . .
Ah, what the hell – buy the album, anyway.

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.
  • tony

    i stumbled across the album by chance and think it’s a gem. i am supprised that it did not get the hiyp it deserves.