Good songs – songs you’d be damn well-pleased to write – fall off Rhett Miller like the daily slough of skin cells.
The longtime New Paltz-area resident barely seems taxed by the responsibility of stocking a solo career and the legendary Dallas alt/country pioneers the Old 97’s with sturdy, classicist songs – songs that suffer no shortage of narrative verve or melodic invention. Why he is not more often numbered alongside Robert Pollard (Guided by Voices), Kevin Barnes (On Montreal), Elvis Costello or the other pathologically prolific songwriters about whom we may worry a little, I am not sure. Maybe two simultaneous careers create a distributed and temporally parallel sense of the body of work, as if Miller actually enjoys 48-hour days and eight-season years.
Overlooking for a moment an outlying pre-97’s effort, Mythologies, Miller’s solo career begins in the toddler years of the new millennium with two extravagantly financed major-label declarations. (“Whom shall we get on drums? Jim Keltner or Matt Chamberlain? I know! Both!”) Helmed by huge-name producers (Jon Brion and George Drakoulias), those efforts swiftly distinguished the solo artist from the ramshackle roots/rock group of friends that built his platform, extracting the natural rock star from the cult band, moving him to the coasts (both) and contextualizing his songs in just about every pop and rock tradition except alt/country.
A fairly standard and fractious rock ’n’ roll narrative, typically ego-y and acrimonious, but the Old 97’s barely blinked. They’ve released what is inarguably some of their best work in the years of solo Rhett Miller. 2008’s Blame It on Gravity might actually be my favorite of theirs, and that was followed by the two overstuffed volumes of The Grand Theatre, the signature rowdy self-effacement of 2014’s Most Messed Up and today’s brand-new and exceptionally good Graveyard Whistling. If the Old 97’s have not succeeded in pushing their way onto a rock ’n’ roll big stage that barely even exists anymore, one thing of which they absolutely cannot be accused is taking their large and enthusiastic fanbase for granted or leaving them wanting. They’ve kept the hits and tours coming and they’ve gotten better and bolder, writing with assurance and daring and pushing their eccentric band chemistry to its stylistic limits without ever violating its exuberant roots/punk essence.
As the aughts graduated into the teens, Miller’s unflagging solo career settled into a boutique vein, and the once-strict stylistic lines between Rhett Miller and Old 97’s records softened, leading to a couple of quietly exceptional and unusual art/roots records that you really might want to check out: 2012’s self-produced The Dreamer (recorded locally at Kevin McMahon’s Marcata Recording in New Paltz) and 2015’s luminous The Traveler, a collaboration with the Decembrists’ offshoot project Black Prairie, with notorious Northwest reprobates Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey spiking the punch as well.
Even though Miller’s recent solo work shares soil with the Old 97’s, the differences in the writing are obvious and significant. The solo songs tend toward the confessional, idiosyncratic, angsty and experimental; the Old 97’s songs are formal. In them, Miller inhabits a traditional American mythic persona, accepting the populist challenge of pop songwriting and working by choice within the tradition. Imagine how Pete Townshend writes for his own voice and how he writes for Roger: same difference, approximately.
Shame on me for getting this far into the story without mentioning that Miller has an eminently worthy songwriting foil in Old 97’s bassist Murry Hammond, Colin (Moulding) to Rhett’s Andy (Partridge), engaging in friendly one-upmanship and goading each other into ever-more-audacious moves. And on The Grand Theatre, it was Hammond who scored the hit with the exquisite REM-ish “How Lovely All It Was,” a track that I am still hearing on the radio on my long drives, and I am struck anew each time by the beauty and perfection of it.
Graveyard Whistling positions the Old 97’s in a reverb-drenched Southwestern production noir environment, like a spooked Calexico on the brown acid but in a really good studio. Sonics and songs are seamlessly coordinated. Undertones of sin and salvation throughout erupt to the surface in the (suddenly red-hot) advance single, “Good with God,” a smoldering duet with Brandi Carlisle.
When “Good with God” runs its course, there are any number of worthy and related follow-ups waiting in line. I’d bank on the album-opening “I Don’t Want to Die in this Town” (Hey, Rhett, you moved to the town that I don’t want to die in. What’s up with that?). The brilliant theological horseplay of “Jesus Loves You” has lasting cult-hit potential. “She Hates Everybody” turns misanthropy into a hurt love story. The band rolls along in its signature rumbustious train groove, but outside the train, the countryside is nocturnal and haunted. This record is nothing less than a field day for the muscular aggro-twang of lead guitarist Ken Bethea, who squalls his noise and waggles his Bigsby in a featured role throughout.
I weary of defending the late-period work of bands and artists as among their best. It happens a lot. The big eye may have looked away; the conditions of cultural relevance shift; good looks fade. But the honest and engaged artist gets better. It is just the way it works. That’s one reason why the sudden heat around “Good with God” is so heartening and exciting. Anyone who follows that lead through to the album is going to find a band both invigorated and utterly in command of their idiom, writing smarter and rocking harder than ever.
Old 97’s Graveyard Whistling was released on ATO Records on February 24. It is available in all the places. Give it a spin.