Rhett Miller

The Instigator (Elektra)

Months before we got a copy of Rhett Miller's second solo record, we heard from people in the know that it was, well, kinda boring. It's not. Unless, of course, you're referring to the album cover, which is like the happier answer to the photo that graces Andrew W.K.'s I Get Wet. The Instigator is also not the record Miller described to Rolling Stone, where that "half the songs illustrate why I needed to make a solo record, songs I've written that wouldn't work within Old 97's." Maybe if Miller were talking about the 1993-'98 incarnation of the 97's, when he sang with a twang and the band made country go bang, then his math would add up. But on their last two albums, 1999's Fight Songs and last year's Satellite Rides, the 97's were heading to pretty much the same place Miller is on The Instigator, playing pretty pop songs.

Produced by Jon Brion (who's worked with Macy Gray, Elliott Smith, Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple, among many others), the disc is full of the clever quips ("Wrapped up in each other/Makin' lovin' out of nothin' like the Air Suppliers said," from "Hover") and reading-is-fundamental allusions (he gives a shout-out to Don DeLillo's Underworld on "World Inside the World") that have always been there in Miller's songs. Miller does more of the work than Brion, whose vaunted studio skills only aggressively surface on "Four-Eyed Girl" (which may be the best song here) and the album-closing "Terrible Vision." The latter tune, especially, is something that probably wouldn't have worked on a 97's disc, what with its backup chorus and trash-can percussion. The rest of The Instigator, however, only brings up one question: It's a good solo effort, but could it have been a great Old 97's album? I'll expect your papers on my desk in the morning.

 
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