Rhett MillerWhen a member of a very well respected band decides to try his or her hand at going solo, the results are usually mixed. At one time, it is nice to see how one of the members stands on his or her own, and it has the opportunity to highlight their talents as musicians and/or lyricists. However, at the same time, an artist risks being wrote off into obscurity as a solo artist because it is hard to imagine him or her outside of the context of the band that made them. Rhett Miller has walked this fine line by making his solo work a secondary focus while still fronting his band, the very influential and highly regarded Old 97’s. This is wisely so, as the Old 97’s have consistently put out albums and singles that have marked them as one of the foremost groups in the alt-country sphere.

With each of his solo albums, beginning with 2002’s The Instigator, Miller has exhibited why he is one of music’s most talented lyricists and that he also knows how to make catchy and pleasing arrangements. This is evident on his latest, self-titled release Rhett Miller. While there is a lot to like about this album, there are many times when one feels they cannot take Miller’s solo work seriously without referring to his work with Old 97’s.

Lyrically, Miller has a special gift for conveying the emotions of love and heartbreak more effortlessly than most artists can only dream of. Part of the reason is that the ideas are presented so simply, but have such a broad and emotional appeal to them.  For example, on album standout “If It’s Not Love”, Miller wonders aloud if his girl loves him by singing “I’m the loser in the corner, and I’m whispering your name”.  It is hard for anyone who has ever been in that sort of situation to not identify with what Miller is saying. Compared to some of his work with Old 97’s, these songs are less like stories, but they seem a little more intimate at the same time. A couple of the album’s other notable songs, such as “I Need to Know Where I Stand”, and “Happy Birthday Don’t Die” follow this same sort of blueprint. This doesn’t always work for the best, however, as some of the songs tend to fade into each other lyrically towards the end of the album.

Musically, things just aren’t the same for Miller without his Old 97’s band mates. Guitarist Ken Bethea, bassist/occasional vocalist Murry Hammond, and drummer Philip Peeples were the perfect complement to Miller’s style, and the band has a certain sort of chemistry that has made them a force to be reckoned with both on record and on stage. That same sort of chemistry is lacking on Rhett Miller. While the session band is very talented in its’ own rights, as highlighted in the bass heavy “Caroline” and a few other tracks, Miller is still at his with his primary band. This may also be part of the reason why Miller’s vocal delivery lacks the edge and sense of urgency that have made him such an endearing figure.

However, all of this is not to say that Miller cannot stand on his own as a solo artist. In his own right, it is great to see that Miller is staying active, and his B material is better than a lot of singer/songwriters strongest stuff. However, at the same time, it will be hard for most people, myself included, to enjoy it completely independent of Miller’s work with Old 97’s. If you approach this album with a clean slate, however, it is easy to appreciate this album for what it is, a solid collection of songs by one of the most talented songwriters out there. While it is not one of the strongest releases of the year, Rhett Miller shows that the Old 97’s front man still has enough of his magic left to keep him as a part of the musical zeitgeist for years to come.

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