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Issue: September 2009

The New King of Pop? (OK, Not Really)

Rhett Miller (Shout Factory)
Rhett Miller

Rhett Miller developed his chops as front man for Texas rockers the Old 97's, starting in the early 1990s. While much of the music that band created has a pop flair, it stood as something different - indie rockers and alt-country fans alike found much to like about the 97's, and for good reason, giving the band an airtight legacy and a long career that is still going strong today.

On his own, however, Miller is a pop guy. His fourth solo album, a self-titled release, contains enough hooks, pop melodies and sweet love songs to give the listener cavities. Now, it's not ALL sugary pop - but the album sure is weighted with it. The good news is that Miller's strong lyrical talents shine through here, and he mixes in enough curveballs to keep this set from being too predictable.

The single "I Need to Know Where I Stand" is straight-ahead AAA pop. It's beautifully crafted, lilting, lushly recorded - you get the picture. They lyric, however, is straight-up Rhett pop; you can pretty much pinpoint the song by reading the title. But it's a solid tune - hey, I personally like what the guy does, but some don't. He does push the limits a bit with the tune "Lashes" as he tosses off this line: "I could live on your love/And nothing else if I had to." Man, that's a panty-peeler - I'm not even sure John Mayer could sing that with a straight face. But it is what it is.

You have been warned. Bring a toothbrush.

On the other hand, there's interesting stuff like "Happy Birthday Don't Die," which sounds like it could have been an Old 97's song in another life. It's a four-and-a-half-minute rocker that builds to a crashing conclusion, and serves as a much needed change of pace in the midst of the balladry.

For instance, the song that follows it is "Bonfire," a creeping, moody composition that features some lovely vocal double tracks and guitar production. And it's also a love song: "The fire is hot/But your hand is cold/Let's fall in love/Before we get old/Watch the fire grow." See what I mean?

The next song is "Haphazardly," a slowly building ballad - this one being much less hopeful in tone than the former. "This is what the house feels like without you in it," he laments, recounting hanging onto a relationship he should long be over.

This turns us to "If It's Not Love," a jumping pop-rocker that will make your feet move involuntarily, and tickle your ears with some gorgeous, Byrds-esque jangly guitar work (is that a 12-string I hear?) as well as a sing-along "ooooh" refrain. And, of course, it's about love. "If you're not gonna be the one/You're gonna be the one I miss." Yep, folks, that's a good pop lyric. Paul McCartney would be proud of this.

"Another Girlfriend" brings Miller's sense of humor into play; it's a swaying country-rock tune with this gem of a lyric: "The last thing I need is another girlfriend/Two is enough for me/Two is enough, and you'd make three."

You've gotten the point by now: This is a solid, perhaps even above average pop album. It might even be your perfect summer ear candy, if you let it be. Or you may prefer to dust off your copy of "Fight Songs;" you make the call. Meanwhile, I'm going to roll down the windows and cruise around listening to some jangle-pop, Miller style.

For more on Rhett Miller, check out rhettmiller.com.

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