RHETT MILLER at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), Monday (November 18). $10. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
despite the enormous audience for so-called Americana music, alt-country artists never really made cash registers ring as anticipated. As a consequence, major-label hopefuls like Wilco and Son Volt have been unceremoniously dumped, while others like Whiskeytown's Ryan Adams and the Old 97s' Rhett Miller regrouped for a different approach.
Whereas Adams is appearing in GAP ads and using his tenuous connections with Elton John to sneak in the back door to the mainstream, Miller is taking a more direct route. The once nerdy Old 97s frontman has had a hunky-boy make-over to coincide with a snappy new Jon Brion-produced album unabashedly designed for pop appeal.
That's not to say The Instigator (Elektra/Warner) is an over-polished, crassly commercial affair. On the contrary, it's atypically low-key for a Brion job, without the hallmark string padding and electronic fiddling.
Certainly the country twang is gone, Miller's vocals are upfront and the hooks are huge, but the production is remarkably understated, built around the way Miller sings to the strum of his acoustic guitar.
"It's actually less of a Jon Brion- sounding production that even I expected," says Miller, lounging in a Toronto hotel room. "Before going in we agreed that at least half of it would be really rockin' to counter the notion of a first solo record being wimpy. I thought the other half was gonna be all horns and strings, but that's not the way it turned out.
"The ones that seemed to work best were the simple, straightforward productions."
Throughout the whole creation process, which involved trying out new material on the crowd at L.A. nightspot Largo, where Brion holds court, Miller admits to being conflicted about which songs might be better served by an Old 97s-style treatment.
The Old 97s are currently without a deal, but Miller still plans to record another Old 97s album.
"Very little of what I do when writing songs is calculated. Whatever's in my head comes out, and I go, "Hey, that's a song.' Afterwards I think, "Well, this one's an Old 97s song and that one isn't.'
"There are some songs on The Instigator that I could've done with the Old 97s, but they would've sounded completely different. The whole idea of doing a record without them was to explore the process of working with different people and to try anything without fear of being vetoed."
While Miller says his solo venture had the blessing of his Old 97s mates, there's more to the decision to go solo than the need to satisfy his curiosity about the way other musicians work. As usual, money was involved.
"Because the Old 97s' deal was coming to a close and I was interested in doing a solo record, the Elektra people proposed that they would nullify the Old 97s' existing contract, thereby absolving us of our seven-figure debt to the label. I would be signed as a solo artist, such that any project in which I'm the lead singer/songwriter falls under the deal.
"It's basically an accounting trick for them to write off a lot of debt, because all the money they absolved us of no longer goes against them on their balance sheet. I know it sounds kinda creepy, but that's how they justified tearing up our old contract."
Some members of the Old 97s have been griping to the media about their past dealings with Elektra. The group's forthcoming reunion disc should make for interesting negotiations, since Elektra will have the right of first refusal.
"We did four records with them that didn't perform as well as expected," concedes Miller with some understatement. "And it's true that some of the other members wish that Elektra could've done more for the band. But there's nobody I know who gets to make four major-label records that don't sell more than 120,000 units.
"Who knows? If my record doesn't sell, they might just say, "See ya later,' and that'll be the end of it."email@example.com