Jonah Matranga (Far, Onelinedrawing) Talks Rhett Miller’s The Traveler

The new Rhett Miller album is good, but it suffers from the best problem a musician can have: the New Slang Problem.

As I was listening to The Traveler repeatedly while working on this piece, the person next to me wondered aloud who it was, and if she’d heard it before. The odds are good she’s at least heard the central voice of the album; Rhett Miller has been fronting the much-beloved Old 97’s since 1993 and has been doing his own solo stuff for nearly as long. My friend’s query pointed to something else I was wrestling with, though: for better and for worse, this album sounds very familiar. It’s comforting and assured both sonically and structurally, steeped in classic pop songwriting and American country atmosphere, with glimpses of (perhaps habitual) modern-rock vocal effect and affect peppered in. There is rarely a couplet that doesn’t resolve the way I thought it might. That’s satisfying enough, but sometimes the songs veer a bit too far from the pop ideal of inevitable into the pop problem of obvious.

Speaking of which, the central problem Miller has is that he wrote one unbelievably great song about 15 years ago. I call it the New Slang Problem, in honor of that timeless gem by the Shins. In many ways, it’s the best problem an artist can have: most songwriters dream of making even one thing that’s so simply and irrefutably complete. The problem is, once I’ve heard it, I can’t help but wish for something else by the songwriter to get to that place, and everything kinda comes up short. For me, Rhett’s New Slang Problem is “Question,” and it is singer-songwriter perfection.  (It first appeared on the Old 97’s 2001 album Satellite Rides, and he later re-recorded it for his 2006 solo album The Believer.)  It’s a simple little voice-and-guitar number with evocative lyrics, couplets that don’t quite resolve sometimes, and an occasional mildly mumbled vocal delivery. The performance is sturdy and effortless, and just sketchy enough to keep me riveted. It’s understated pop perfection. This is all to say: now that I know that Rhett can do that, I want him to do it again — not to write the same song, just to get to the same place. And I know that’s totally unfair.

I’m not gonna do that cheap thing of quoting lyrics and pointing out that they don’t read as well as they’re sung, cuz beyond making fun of AC/DC (while loving them), it’s just no fun for anyone. That said, there are some moments where I do wish the rhymes were a bit more surprising and the imagery more personal or original. I guess that goes for everything about The Traveler, really.

The record was recorded very quickly, with lots of live takes kept. Sadly, it doesn’t sound as haphazard and fresh as it might under those circumstances. The fun of these simple musical forms has always been the clumsiness, the musicians somehow playing just barely past their limitations. But this all sounds too in control.

“Wanderlust” is played at an invigorating tempo, with some fantastic support by his backing band, Black Prairie, which includes members of the Decemberists. (Decemberist guitarist Chris Funk produced the album, and former R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and college-rock hero/Young Fresh Fellows guitarist Scott McCaughey also make appearances.) “Wanderlust” almost catches fire throughout, but never quite. It’s got that studio thing where the vocal delivery is very measured and low-register whispery on top of a really rockin’ feel. That approach can work sometimes, and it does here, sort of. At a show, I bet it’d be a blast.

“Fair Enough” is another peppy one with a little more space than the lead track. There’s a nice, tight chorus. It also benefits from Jenny Conlee-Drizos’ gorgeous voice, which pairs pretty perfectly with Rhett’s. “Kiss Me on the Fire Escape” has some neat phrasing and a nice, playful tempo, but I’ll bet even Rhett would agree that ever since Paul Westerberg croaked “Kiss Me on the Bus” thirty years ago on the Replacements’ classic album Tim (1985), it’s tough to get away with any similar lyric. Sometimes artists and songs just cast too big a shadow.

“Dreams vs. Waking Life” is perhaps the most interesting song on the album. It’s a nice little dirge, with a lush minor-to-major chorus entrance. This would’ve been a great place for great lyrics, but they stay in the same frustratingly middling place. “Wicked Things” features Conlee-Drizos’ voice to great effect again, and it’s nice to hear the pair singing while not entirely surrounded by instrumentation. It’s not necessarily different structurally or thematically than the other tunes, it’s just a bit more relaxed and spacious, which goes a long way.

“Reasons to Live” ends things on a perky note, with Rhett and Jenny singing, “Thank God I didn’t die when I wanted to” (along with reiterating, “I have found reasons to live”) in the secondary chorus. I’d love to hear a matching sense of urgency to having this new life; I’d like to hear more about these new reasons in finer detail, and about the life he lived when he wanted to die. It’s a sturdy song, with a celebratory feel, and right at the end it almost sounds ready to lift off…and then it ends, and I’m still left feeling not quite let in.

This is a good record, with flashes of really good. I’m giving it somewhat of a hard time because I expected it be good, but I want it to be more than good. I’d love to hear Miller try something he’s not as practiced and professional at, something not so easily aggregated into alt-country playlists, something just rough enough to help him get to the great stuff.

Jonah Matranga lives in San Francisco and loves music way too much. He has played in the bands Far, New End Original and Gratitude, and continues to tour and record as Onelinedrawing. You can follow him on Twitter here and visit his website here.