Rhett Miller, better known as the lead singer of alt-country favorites the Old 97's, emerges strong, confident and fey on his first solo album. Old 97's fans, do not fret the band has not broken up, and Miller has not pulled a Ryan Adams (formerly lead singer of Whiskeytown, another alt-country buzz band, and now bona fide solo artist). The Instigator finds Miller dealing in upbeat pop-rock; the songs are uniformly strong, though the sound is a tad unoriginal. But Miller's delicious sense of melody and lyrical accessibility marshals The Instigator along; Jon Brion's crisp production also enlivens each song with certain freshness. The songwriting is self-assured and thoughtful; the album is unified as a pastiche of romantic musings.
The songs are brisk and upbeat, more pop-friendly than, say, the leaning-toward-twangy music from early Old 97's albums. Sure, the inevitable but still appropriate Ryan Adams comparison stands. Both singers have forsaken country influences, favoring "rock" guitar sounds and pop-rock hooks on their solo albums. The sheer vibrancy and lack of portentous instrumentation buttresses Miller's polished acoustic-friendly croon (which is less gruff than Adams'), his love-savvy pining and the joyful quality of the music (despite sometimes lovelorn lyrics). The songs are economically orchestrated, using mostly guitar (electric and acoustic), bass and drums. Miller pens lyrically astute songs, prone to romantic observations to which it's easy to relate, ensuring that listeners will connect with the sentiments expressed.
"The El," a suave electric honky-tonk and a paean to Chicago's mass transit system flits along on a quest for love. "You're alone/ Way from where you belong, unaware," sings Miller, in a riveting tune about public displays of affection, and those who seek the love and affection. The song is only one of several that examine the dynamics of romantic attraction, its effects, and the pain caused by its absence.
Attraction is given especially sensitive treatment on the first single, "Come Around," a languid bit of acoustic melancholy overflowing with soul-searching. "Am I going to be lonely for the rest of my life?" Miller asks, going on to reflect, in a falsetto awash in misery, "I am going to be lonely for the rest of my life/ Unless you come around." The song is so beautiful that you almost want him to remain lonely so he'll keep writing gems such as this; once he gets a girlfriend he might stop singing the song, you see. Sensitive boys and girls will relate, blasting the song from their rooms and singing along, channeling Miller's pain. But, as it turns out, lovely as the song is, Miller's no longer lovesick and lonely. He married his girlfriend last year. Nevertheless, the song is reminiscent of Adams' own plea for love, "When the Stars Go Blue," from 2001's Gold. Miller qualifies his desire, and the song, also loaded with a blue motif, becomes a tangible vehicle for comprehending heartbreak.
"Our Love," a jaunty opening number, makes for an enjoyable sing-along, peppered with driving guitar and a palpable, breezy rhythm. Shambolic in a sense, the song is a celebration of a love affair gone right. "Our love's surpassed our love so fast," Miller sings, spitting out the words blithely, playfully and the song parallels his claim. It's a toe-tapper with romantic implications. "Four Eyed Girl," with some organ added to the mix, is another light love song, infectiously melodic and, after a while, vexing when you find you can't get it out of your head.
Even the more sonically downtrodden tracks still benefit from Miller's innate charm. "Terrible Vision," appears painful, sludged in a layered hodgepodge of vocals, including those of Miller and female backing singers, as well as dissonant guitar strums; but the lyrics remain quirky. Miller opens the tune with this clever zinger: "I had a dream I was employed/ In my old position as your second-string/ It cut me down to the quick."
Musically, The Instigator is pure pop fun, no doubt about it. Miller has yet to prove himself as prodigious a talent as Adams, but never mind that. Taken on its own terms, this one is a keeper.