“It’s a grown-up record,” Rhett Miller says of his extraordinary new album, The Dreamer. “It takes a long time to feel the confidence to step up and be the boss. I finally feel like I’m there.”
Rhett Miller has made a number of fine solo albums over his long, illustrious career, but none have felt quite as exemplary as The Dreamer. A collection of “simple American songs and instrumentation,” the album marks the second release on Miller’s own Maximum Sunshine Records as well as the singer/songwriter’s first foray into self-production. Sparsely arranged but animated with unrefined energy and emotion, songs like “Out Of Love” and “Swimmin’ In Sunshine” join together elements of classic country, indie folk, and chamber pop, bridging the space between Miller’s harder rocking work with the Old 97’s and the inventive complexity of his brilliant solo career.
“It’s a tricky thing,” Miller says, “making a solo career work simultaneously with a band. On the first solo records, I made a real point to differentiate them sonically from what the Old 97’s do. I don’t feel so defensive about it anymore. I can make solo records without feeling like I have to walk on eggshells for anybody.”
Despite the Old 97’s prolifically in recent years – including five studio albums over the last decade – Miller found himself with a cache of material that didn’t necessarily work within the rather ornery confines of the band. The songs all had a common thread which marked them as too temperate for the 97’s and yet more traditional roots-rock than anything Miller had done on prior solo records.
“I love to write songs,” Miller says. “I love words and I love the stories you can tell in three minutes. This stack of songs seemed so natural and organic and I just wanted to play ‘em.”
Miller decided to take an appropriately naturalistic approach towards the songs by producing them on his own. Having previously teamed with such top studio hands as George Drakoulias and longtime collaborator Jon Brion, he felt sure that he had the requisite chops to stand behind the helm of his own sessions.
“I kept explaining to people – management, the labels, the other musicians – what I hear and what I want to create,” Miller says, “and it occurred to me, ‘Why am I depending on somebody else to realize the vision that I have when I could just as easily bring it to fruition myself?’”
In September 2011, Miller set to work at Dreamland Studios in pastoral West Hurley, New York, just south of Woodstock. His first move as a producer was to surround himself with “people that take care of their own business, that bring their own brilliance to the table.” With that in mind, Miller assembled a top flight team comprised of engineer Kevin McMahon (Real Estate, Titus Andronicus) and his longtime road band, The Serial Lady Killers – guitarist Tommy Borscheid, bassist Greg Beshers, and drummer Angela Webster – as well as a roster of guest players including pedal steel guitarist Rich Hinman (Ben Kweller, Matt Keating), keyboardist Joe McGinty (Nada Surf, Stew & The Negro Problem), and Miller’s upstate NY neighbor, legendary percussionist Jerry Marotta (Peter Gabriel, Hall & Oates).
Having worked together since touring behind 2006’s The Believer, the core band’s simpatico connection helped streamline Miller’s first venture into production. Their tacit communication allowed him to track much of the record completely live, invigorating the material with freewheeling vibrancy and high spirits.
“It was just natural and easy,” he says. “Everybody got along so well. The sessions weren’t terribly long because we weren’t going crazy with overdubs, we weren’t trying to make anything overly perfect, so it went more quickly than any record I’d ever been a part of. The only downside was that we were having so much fun, it seemed like it ended too soon.”
While Miller’s initial goal had been to follow last year’s self-released collection of covers, The Interpreter: Live At Largo, with a similarly stripped-down sound, it became evident these new songs warranted more of “a backbone.” He adopted an effervescent pop/rock approach akin to such current fave combos as Dawes, David Wax Museum and The Head and The Heart, surrounding his own acoustic guitar and vocals with lilting arrangements and an array of female harmonies. Among the talented women adding their voices to the proceedings are Rachael Yamagata, Heather Robb (of NYC-based folk-pop combo, The Spring Standards), and the great Rosanne Cash, who is featured on the co-written duet, “As Close As I Came To Being Right.” Recording vocals for the latter track stands out as a particular highlight for Miller, who is justifiably jubilant at how perfectly he and Cash meshed.
“As soon as we finished, we looked at each other and went, ‘Oh my god, we really click,’” Miller says. “Sometimes you can have two voices and they don’t necessarily go that well together. But she and I? Ours do.”
Teaming with Cash prompted Miller to “stretch his wings” via more collaborations, including songwriting partnerships with Jude Cole (“I’ll Try To”) and Ben Kweller, who lent his distinctive style to the buoyant album opener, “Lost Without You.”
“Ben is such a positive guy,” Miller says, “such a cheerleader. Getting to write with him was really fun. That song sets the tone for the whole record – there’s a lot going on but it’s still very simple. Straightforward folk music with a bunch of words and a good backbeat.”
The earthy country pop of The Dreamer is ideally matched by the plaintive characterizations and the nuanced craftsmanship of a master tunesmith. Having loosely structured the album to create a somewhat illusory impression of loss, disconnection, and eventual redemption, Miller consciously infused The Dreamer with a subtle sense of the unconscious.
“There’s a very dreamlike quality to what’s going on in these songs,” he says. “There’s a sonic quality, of gently loping rhythms, and all these lyrics that are realistic but somewhat disjointed.”
Those off-kilter observations distinguish such songs as “Out of Love,” which was inspired by the big beats blaring in the breakfast room of a hipster boutique hotel but ultimately morphed into Miller’s “answer to what a hit pop song would sound like in my perfect world.” Elsewhere, “Picture This” serves as the album’s tender heart. Co-written with the aforementioned Spring Standards – whose 2008 EP he co-produced – the track expertly exemplifies the album’s bucolic soulfulness and spirit.
“It’s a song about growing up, getting married, having a couple of kids, and how unlikely the whole thing seems,” Miller says. “They had written some really sweet lyrics, then I brought the value of my experience with regards to that specific situation and we were able to come up with this song together.”
A similar merging of sagacity and ingenuousness can be said to sum up The Dreamer, its smart, skilled songwriting balanced and brought to life by a playful spontaneity and its creator’s hard-earned confidence. Having taken the reins into his own hands, Rhett Miller has crafted what feels like a milestone in his unquestionably robust oeuvre, a definitive portrait of the artist at his autonomous best.
“I loved making this album so much,” he says enthusiastically, “seeing the ease with which it can be done. Doing this myself, on my own label, with all these friends, it was a dream come true.”
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