Album Review: Rhett Miller, ‘The Traveler’
Fittingly enough, the official video for "Let's Get Drunk & Get It On" by Rhett Miller's longtime band the Old 97's -- which follows a day in the life of all four members as they recover from hangovers -- perfectly sums up the predicament that any band member releasing a solo album faces. Stick too close to your main band's sound and risk repeating yourself without the rest of the members there to prop you up. Wander too far from what you're known for, on the other hand, and risk alienating fans.
Perhaps because Miller's solo career pre-dates the Old 97's, he doesn't succumb to either of those extremes on his latest full-length solo outing.
Of course, it also helps that The Traveler doesn't exactly qualify as a solo album. For backup, this time Miller opted to employ Black Prairie, a Portland, Ore.-based bluegrass sextet, four of whose members also play in the Decemberists. Black Prairie bring a crackle of genuine band chemistry to these songs, all of which were left over from the stack of material that Miller wrote for last year's Old 97's full-length, Most Messed Up. In short, where he and the Old 97's tend to favor raw, rocked-up country, this time Miller and Black Prairie lean more toward the rustic end of the spectrum. Together, they highlight the honky tonk aspects of Miller's writing, along with more delicate shades that might have otherwise remained submerged.
Still, Miller sticks to the cheerful, boozy mood he's most known and loved for. Take "Most in the Summertime." With guest appearances by R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey, Miller and company -- get this -- celebrate the act of going on a picnic.
Miller and ATO Records were wise to release this album in the lead-up to summer, a decision that ideally positions The Traveler as a go-to choice for anyone looking to soundtrack the good-time vibes of the season.