on’t you feel bad for Rhett Miller.
He has an absolutely magnificent head of hair, his wife is a model, his songs are often praised for being “literate,” and he gets to indulge his decidedly non-alt country pop desires on solo records without hurting the three middle-aged men in Old 97s’ feelings. Charmed son-of-a-bitch.
But there’s one thing Rhett Miller doesn’t have: that nameless thing in his brain to tell him when he’s crossed the line, when he’s rendered himself too emotionally vulnerable, when his tender puppy-dog eyed sincerity becomes excruciating earnestness. And Rhett Miller is earnest. Rhett Miller is earnest. And there isn’t a more appropriate album title in the world for Rhett Miller than the one at the top of this page. He believes, man!
At an Old 97s show at the 9:30 Club in D.C. a few years ago Miller sang “Question” dedicated to some guy in the crowd and mid-song some guy in the crowd right next to me gets down on one knee and proposes to his girlfriend (she said yes) and Miller had this Cheshire grin on his face the whole time and it just made me want to jump on stage and kick him in the shins, but I was too busy smiling at what a really nice moment it was. That’s Rhett Miller.
Cheese is Rhett Miller’s default, but his sharp lyrical wit usually helps strike the necessary balance. “Roller Skate Skinny,” “Come Around,” “Jagged,” and “Weightless” are each, without argument, terrific songs. His work with Old 97s speaks for itself, and his first solo album, 2003’s The Instigator, remains surprisingly excellent. But no matter how many literary allusions or whimsically witty turns of phrase he packs into a verse, The Believer lacks the balance and blood of his previous work.
Sure it’s thicker, heavier, its arrangements more ambitious, but its sound is even more safe and polished than its Jon Brion-produced predecessor, he of the ability to spit-shine mud until he sees himself in it. The drop-tuned jagged guitars of 2004’s disappointing-but-at-least-enthusiastic Drag It Up and The Instigator’s propulsive pop have given way to overcooked by-the-numbers standard risk-free faceless pop-rock schmaltz. It’s harmless. It’s charmless. It’s cheese. It’s a shame.
Album opener “My Valentine” manages the difficult task of being both misleading and a perfect predictor for what follows on The Believer, with its fanciful strings-filled opening melody kicking into a hard stomping cork popping catchy rocker. But songs like the drug-addled “Meteor Shower” are more par for the course, a simple laboring ballad drifting through without much fuss.
The moments that do stick seem to have little to do with Miller: Rachael Yamagata’s sublime vocals upstage him on “Fireflies,” the album’s best song “I Believe She’s Lying” and its best lyric (which we’re to believe is Miller’s forte) “I have every confidence that she'll dismantle mine” comes courtesy of Jon Brion, and for all the stylish liner notes photographs of Miller posed with trusty acoustic guitar, not a single recorded plucked string was plucked by him.
Only on the album’s title track, his heartfelt tribute to fellow-Texan Elliott Smith, does Miller’s talent burst through the string arrangements, expressing actual empathy and understanding where most could only manage a “shame, I dug him a lot.” No lines crossed here. Unfortunately, it’s the exception to The Believer’s rule.
The lesson as always: Steve Perry was full of shit, ain’t nothing wrong with a little doubt.
Reviewed by: Barry Schwartz
Reviewed on: 2006-03-17