Rhett Miller | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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On Fight Songs (Elektra), the 1999 album by the Old 97's, front man Rhett Miller blossomed from an alt-country journeyman into a bona fide tunesmith. His melodic instincts were even more assured on the quartet's 2001 follow-up, Satellite Rides, where his wry twists on the standard themes of lust and heartbreak were set snugly within the band's tight arrangements, which bore hardly a trace of the generic twang of their early work. By the time that album was released Miller had moved to LA and was showcasing new, gentler songs at Largo, the hip club where producer Jon Brion regularly holds court. Last year Brion, who's created distinctive sounds for Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, and even jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, signed on to help Miller make his first solo album, The Instigator. (The Old 97's, the rest of whom stayed in Dallas, are reportedly on hiatus.) It's a straight-up pop record, at times reminiscent of Elvis Costello or Matthew Sweet, and the hooks are undeniable. But Miller's obviously not supported by a working band. Brion plays most of the instruments, with the aid of a few studio pros (mostly percussionists Lenny Castro, Josh Freese, and Jim Keltner), and the disc has a stiff cut-and-paste feel: sweet electric guitar leads appear out of thin air and disappear just as suddenly. The Old 97's gave Miller's songs a rush that made his lyrics sound spontaneous; here the music's meticulous construction makes lines like "The love I need / Is the love you give" and "You got terrible vision / If you don't see that I'm in love with you" sound as flat as they read. Still Miller's smarts occasionally shine through--"This Is What I Do" is a sharp, knowing admission that he writes stupid love songs for a living. He opens for Neil Finn; the show is sold-out. Wednesday, February 5, 7:30 PM, the Vic, 3145 N. Sheffield; 773-472-0449 or 312-559-1212.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mark Seliger.

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