The Believer Label: Verve Forecast Records
Rhett Miller makes no excuses when revealing his inspiration for naming the second solo record of his career The Believer. “I wrote (the title track) in New York City the day Elliott Smith died. It really hit home for me. My first date with my wife was seeing Elliott play at the Royal Albert Hall. I had a pretty serious suicide attempt when I was 14, and I’ve always wrestled with that impulse. I don’t know if the song is all about Elliott, maybe it’s about me at 14, I’m not exactly sure. But the song’s kind of saying thanks for doing the good work you did, and I understand that you were doing your best.”
The solemn undertones of the title track, buried late in the record, stand against an otherwise up-tempo, feel-good guitar rock album. Packing the studio with more than enough talent, Miller enlists longtime friend and collaborator Jon Brion, as well as Aimee Mann, Rachel Yamagata, Gary Louris, and renowned rock producer George Drakoulias (of Black Crowes and Tom Petty fame). All-star cast aside, The Believer is still about Rhett Miller, his guitar, and his songs. Whether the immediate ear candy of a cheerful pop cut like “Help Me, Suzanne,” which is equal parts Monkees and Connells, or the lap steel-induced country waltz of “Fireflies”, a stunning duet with Yamagata, Miller’s scripts fly fearlessly above the musical arrangements and tempo.
While it’s not easy for the Old 97’s singer and songwriter to distinguish himself from his band’s sound on every track, The Believer makes a valiant attempt. Certainly the giddy-up twang of “Singular Girl” (how long before the wireless cell phone company gets a hold of this one for an ad campaign?) could have been found on the last two Old 97’s projects, but the funkier, groove-ridden “Ain’t That Strange” steals more from the Cars, with distorted guitars, keyboard, and playful hand claps. Supercharged rock entries like “I’m With Her” and “Delicate” have Drakoulias’ stamp all over them, and Brion and Mann lend vocals on Miller’s cover of Brion and Mann’s “I Believe She’s Lying,” the album’s standout track.
It’s a shame that Miller’s first endeavor with the unknown Verve Forecast label is shackled down with the annoying copyright protection software. The waiver on the back of the CD even tells consumers not to expect to be able to play this disc in all CD players, including computers and even car stereos. What a joke! Please pay us $14 retail for a CD you can only play on devices we deem acceptable. Penalize the fair-paying public while discount mp3 sites across the country are offering unprotected versions of the same album, weeks before its release, for a dollar or so. Something’s got to give here.