By Al Kaufman
One need look no further than the first line of his new self-titled CD to know that Rhett Miller likes playing with words. "Keyboards and keystrokes and keystones and keys," he sings on "Nobody Says I Love You Anymore." The song also includes the clever turn of phrase, "Time waits for no man, for woman it stops."
Miller's lyrics and strong sense of melody have been the guiding force behind his band, Old 97's. As the band morphed from renegade country to alternative pop, the only difference between the band and Miller's solo work seemed to be that Miller tried for teen idol poser boy looks on his solo CD covers. Miller even included two Old 97's songs, "Singular Girl" and "The Question," on his last solo CD, The Believer.
This is the first Rhett Miller CD that sounds like something he wouldn't do with his bandmates. While on their last CD, Blame It on Gravity, Old 97's seemed to finally settle on the perfect blend of pop and twang, Miller is strictly pop here. The crew he's assembled bring their own sounds. John Dufilho's drums often take on a military snare quality. Billy Harvey's electric guitar adds a bit of fuzz to songs such as the thinly-veiled environmental plea "Happy Birthday Don't Die," and can turn in a crystalline performance on "I Need to Know Where I Stand" (which opens with the line "Kissing in the classroom on a campus on the coast").
This is pop in it's top form. Miller even steals from the best. His opening bars of "If It's Not Love" are disturbingly similar to those in Elvis Costello's version of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding."
Then there's Miller's voice. It has enough gruffness, sincerity and whine in it to convey sensitivity. That, combined with those CD covers, makes the girls swoon.