Too edgy for Nashville and Country radio but not raucous enough for Modern Rock, Alt-Country acts are stuck in no man's land usually garnering rave reviews but marginal record sales.
Alt-Country dispenses with Nashville's jokey, self-deprecating humor in a search for something closer to real life. Of course, Nashville sells millions of CDs and a lotta folks make a ton of money. In Alt-Country, not so much. It has to be viewed more as a mission than a commercial endeavor.
It's a life of small venues without much chance of things getting bigger. The Old 97's were just such a group. The Dallas quartet, led by guitarist/vocalist Rhett Miller, had a great rep but were hardly a household name. Eventually, Miller busied himself with side projects including a solo career - becoming one of Alt-Country's leading practitioners.
In '02, he released "Instigator." That was followed three years later by "The Believer," an effort Miller likened to "George Gershwin does T. Rex's "The Slider." That description conjures a mash up of "Summertime" and "Bang A Gong."
Fortunately, it is not that. A better synopsis, again in Miller's own words is, "The songs on "The Believer" are about sex, war, love and death . . . but mostly sex." That's better.
Miller's '09 effort was a self-titled 12 song set that featured "It's Not Love" and "Caroline." Two years later, "The Interpreter: Live At Largo," dropped.
"The Dreamer," was Miller's sixth solo album. "I produced 'The Dreamer' myself, a first for me, and had a very clear vision of what it should be, an intimate, rootsy record that would bridge the gap between my work with the Old 97's and the solo albums I've made in the past," said Miller. "'The Dreamer' is all about simple American songs and instrumentation. It was a blast to make."
The set had guest appearances by Rosanne Cash and Rachael Yamagata, a singer-songwriter-pianist. The album also featured Miller's touring group, the Serial Lady Killers.
2002 The Instigator
2006 The Believer
2009 Rhett Miller
2011 The Interpreter: Live At Largo
2012 The Dreamer
One thing about Country, even Alt-Country, is artists know a catchy tune. Miller's music is slightly reminiscent of '70s Country-Rock but lyrically he's more adventurous and challenging. This has resulted in comparisons to Alt-Country's prolific poster boy Ryan Adams but Miller tends to be more straight-ahead and Rock oriented.
"The Dreamer" straddles the line between Country and Rock. But the best tracks are those that clearly fall on one side or the other. On the left, there's the noisy romp "Out Of Love." To the right, "As Close As I Come To Being Right," a duet with Rosanne Cash, and "Love Grows" score. The set closes with the charmingly fun, "Sweet Dreams."
Two tracks jump out immediately on Miller's self-titled effort: The Alt-Country brilliant "It's Not Love" and the fierce "Happy Birthday Don't Die." Whether he is singing a torchy Rock song ("Nobody Says I Love You Anymore") and easy-flowing tune about dating a co-ed ("Need To Know Where I Stand") or a shuffle ("Another Girlfriend"), Miller is intimate, revealing and just flat out sounds great.
"The Believer" has a pair of jaunty, friendly songs, "Singular Girl" and "I'm With Her." "I Believe She's Lying" treads between the Black Crowes and Tom Petty. Not surprising since the CD was produced by George Drakoulias who has worked with both. Album opener "My Valentine" has an accessible twang and "Help Me Suzanne" is pleasing shot of purebred Country-Rock. The title track, an acoustic ballad, sounds like something the Eagles might have attempted until the lyrics take a harder edge.
The "Instigator" is not quite as accomplished as "The Believer" but it has notable tracks in "This Is What I Do," "Come Around" and "Things That Disappear." "Your Nervous Heart" talks about giving the world the finger, never a bad idea, but it drags.
If there is a desire to dig deeper, check out the Old 97's "Fight Songs." Miller really hasn't departed too far from that sound.