Album Reviews: Believer by Rhett MillerAs leader of the Old 97s, Rhett Miller has been one of the most lionized figures in alt-country, possibly eclipsed only by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and Ryan Adams. This trifecta worked their ways into a lot of hearts with their good-natured, boozy, heartfelt country-rockers and barroom ballads. But their track records, especially of late, have been problematic for anyone who’d merely like to hear the songwriters playing to their old strengths. Tweedy has alienated some fans -- albeit while gaining many others -- with his more sonically adventurous post-Summerteeth outings, while Adams has done the same with a famously brash attitude and a prolific but uneven solo output. But Miller’s The Believer may be the biggest misfire to date from the golden trio: a treacly, glossy, Hollywood pop album that is heavy on MOR hooks and light on guts or punch.
The flipside is that The Believer is pristine and carefully composed, with songs that are lively and melodic. Choruses latch onto the listener after only a couple listens. There is an effective ebb and flow between the libidinous good-time rockers and the sensitive downtempo rockers. Miller, in case you missed the cover photo, is a pretty cool cat, and he keeps pretty cool company; his Believer band is a crack team of session hitmen, led by drummer Matt Chamberlain and ubiquitous jack-of-all-instruments Jon Brion. The ever-sultry Rachael Yamagata (in full Cat Power mode) joins Miller for a reflective, torchy duet on “Fireflies” -- but even that doesn’t ache as deep in the bones as it seems to want to.
This sterility is pervasive; despite the technical soundness, the band generates very little chemistry, and producer George Drakoulias exacerbates the continual overcooking. There are the requisite built-in handclaps, the swelling canned strings, the “sha la la” chorus, the mushy harmony vocals -- under the giant umbrella of Americana, Miller and company set up camp in the poppiest corner. Time and again, The Believer is closer to Gin Blossoms than much more compelling bands like Okkervil River or Calexico or, let’s be frank, Old 97s. It’s an album without a speck of dirt under its fingernails. -- Adam McKibbin, The Red Alert
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