Rhett Miller "The Dreamer"

Rhett Miller has done a good job of balancing his musical career between his work with the alt-country band The Old 97’s and his solo work. During band hiatuses he’s produced three solo albums that have showcased his ability to craft catchy pop and rock songs. For his fourth solo effort Miller has taken a different approach. The Dreamer is a collection of roots and country songs, mostly acoustic, with a smattering of the precision pop of his first three solo efforts.

For The Dreamer, Miller created his own label, Maximum Sunshine, a move that was financed by his fan base. The decision means that he will, for the first time, own his music. It also means he can produce the music the way he wants, without company oversight. Miller’s choice is to produce these songs with minimum overlays and mostly live direct-to-tape recordings. They aren’t exactly lo-fi but they are a little ragged which fits the nature of his lovelorn protagonists. Whether it’s with the Old 97s or as a solo artist, Miller’s M.O. is that of the luckless, big-hearted, struggling hopeless romantic. It’s what he’s always done best so why change now?

On his past solo released Miller’s songs were marked by a distinctly non-Old 97s sound. In contrast The Dreamer begins with a track that sounds very much like one of the band’s early songs. Not only does “Lost Without You,” a song co-written with Ben Kweller, ring with tinny piano, pedal-steel, and electric honky-tonk guitar, but the sentiment feels like the band’s olds stuff as well. Miller pulls up the emotions he experienced after moving into his late grandmother’s house shortly going through a difficult period in his own life.

Miller’s sense of humor enlivens “Sleepwalkin’,” a track that features vocalist Rachel Yamagata. Miller admits to creating a fantasy story based on filmmaker Lynn Shelton. “She was a genius/she’d won awards and stuff/I was intimidated/she had a prominent nose/I was infatuated….” The details of their short lived affair (all fantasy) roll atop a shuffling rhythm. “As Close As I Came To Being Right” features Rosanne Cash who also co-wrote it. Their voices co-mingle within the classic country arrangement.

Miller’s penchant for shining pop arrangements do sneak into a couple of tracks, namely the album’s single, “Out of Love,” and “Swimmin’ In Sunshine” which lives up to it’s name. “Marina” offers Rhett Miller at his purest, accompanied only by his acoustic guitar. The joy of any Rhett Miller album is listening for his smart, often self-effacing lyrics. How he manages to churn out so many great songs about an impossibly handsome man who either can’t get the girl, or can’t keep her, is a mystery to me.

Rosemary Welsch (Afternoon Host)