Rhett Miller
The Misfit
(ATO)
3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Few artists can successfully juggle both individual careers and working with a band simultaneously. Rarer still are those who front outfits active for thirty years, and even less with groups whose membership has stayed unchanged for that time. That puts the prolific Rhett Miller nearly in a category by himself.

As co-founder of the Old 97’s (formed in 1993), Miller has sung and written the majority of songs from their 12 studio albums. He also has maintained a sturdy career external to them, officially starting with The Instigator in 2002 and continuing through this, his eighth effort since.

To his credit, Miller’s work under his name differs substantially from the crisp, propulsive country rocking that has been the Old 97’s trademark since their inception. Rather, he sticks to more reflective fare, undeniably separate from the ringing guitars and taut tunes of his full-time job.

Painting by Ashley Longshore

That’s certainly the case with The Misfit. Here, as on The Messenger (2018), his previous collaboration with producer/multi-instrumentalist Sam Cohen—who deserves his name in bold alongside Miller’s—the tone is dreamier and introspective. Cohen not only plays every instrument and is co-credited with penning the songs, but produces and mixes the project. The overall approach is more meditative and keyboard oriented, lacking the harder-edged power pop Miller composes for the 97’s. I’m not going crazy baby, I’m already there, he sings over puffy clouds of keyboards in “Already There,” with just a touch of Lennon‘s inflection. On the following, “Just When It Gets Good,” he questions why his partner would leave when things seem to be going fine with You wanna talk about redemption/You gotta f**k it up real bad. These are not the thoughts of a contented guy, which Miller seems to be, with two successful outlets for his originality.

It’s typical of his outside 97’s material which skews to the darker side of relationships. Everything locks on a mid-tempo to ballad rhythm, heavy on dreamy vibes, moody keyboards, and basic drums as Miller unloads his romantic woes with doe-eyed sincerity and just enough hooks to keep us involved. If this melancholy album was released in the ’80s, it would slot in with those from The Church, Galaxy 500, and others of that time.

No problems there, especially if that’s your sweet spot. And even with the one-man-band/overdub aspect of this music’s creation, it feels organic and at times spacey enough to have been played by a gathering of similarly inclined musicians, a testament to Cohen’s multiple skills.

Those looking for pensive, low-key, and melodic tunes from a talented vocalist/songwriter will find plenty to love here. The Misfit continues Miller’s impressive solo run, allowing his overflowing creativity an outlet in songs that would never adapt to the Old 97’s tougher approach.     

Credit: Ebru Yildiz / Missing Piece Group

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