Rhett Miller, ‘The Dreamer’ – Album Review
When talking about the bulk of working musicians, this could come off as a back-handed compliment, but in Rhett Miller’s case, you have to to praise his consistency before anything else. And in the case of his newest solo venture, which casts the long-tenured songcraft and frontman of alt-country workhorses the Old 97′s in the titular role of ‘The Dreamer,’ Miller is nothing if not consistent.
His latest — and greatest since 2002′s Jon Brion-produced ‘The Instigator’– offers a steady dosage of winsome and hazy-headed twang that, at times, gives unexpected nods towards nu-Americana contemporaries Conor Oberst (album opener ‘Lost Without You’ employs some familiar, bright-eyed vocal tremolo) and M. Ward (‘Complicated Man,’ the most potent grower on the disc). Unlike those two, however, Miller’s songs rarely sound cramped, forced or otherwise inorganic.
For better or worse, ‘The Dreamer’ isn’t an album that will juke a listener with flourishes or musical tricks. And more power to him for just that. Miller has found himself with a sturdy, classically un-trendy record that can confidently stand up to wear — especially for the romantically jilted listener looking for a fellow traveler. This, his first self-produced venture, keeps the heavy melancholia accentuated with a smooth glaze of high and lonesome pedal steel guitar and lyrics about romantic implosion that are just vague enough to ring anyone’s bell.
In fact, if he really means it when he sings “I’m only happy when I’m singing a sad, sad song” in ‘Out of Love,’ Miller must have had the time of his life constructing this album.
The highlight of the ‘The Dreamer,’ however, is ‘Sleepwalkin’,’ a gorgeous, shuffling country number full of uncharacteristically specific allusions to a blind item of a woman: ostensibly a “genius,” award-winning filmmaker with a prominent nose. (Our best guess is that our boy had a European fling with Sofia Coppola, perhaps?)
Unfortunately, after the early high points of ’Sleepwalkin’,’ album opener ‘Lost Without You, and single ‘Out of Love,’ ‘The Dreamer’ finds itself plateaued for stretches at a time. ‘Marina’ is uncharacteristically treacly. and ‘Love Grows,’ in spite of its fun-size playtime, is an egregious example of Gram Parsons mimicry.
But ultimately, by the final track — in which Miller stops in the Brill Building for a quick burst of inspiration from the legendary pop factory –’The Dreamer’ is chocked with more than enough successful moments of musical grace to warrant a few more spins and, as the astute listener will discover, a couple of hidden moments of sly songwriting to make the effort worthwhile.