Personnel: Rhett Miller (vocals, acoustic guitar); Annalisa Tornfelt (vocals, fiddle, strings); John Moen (vocals, drums, percussion); Jon Neufeld (acoustic guitar, electric guitar); Chris Funk (electric guitar, dobro, bouzouki, bells, sampler); Peter Buck (electric 12-string guitar, mandolin, 6-string bass); Jenny Conlee-Drizos (accordion, piano, Hammond b-3 organ, chamberlin); Scott McCaughey (6-string bass).
Audio Mixer: Vance Powell.
Recording information: Jackpot! Recording Studio, Portland, OR; Walker, Portland, OR.
Arranger: Scott McCaughey.
Rhett Miller has been dividing his time between the Old 97's and his solo career since 2002 (we'll generously overlook his 1994 indiscretion Mythologies), and he's been looking for a comfortable stylistic home since 2002's The Instigator, wavering back and forth between various approaches to pop with a vague country inflection hovering on the margins. One thing has remained constant, though -- he keeps falling for the wrong kind of women, which was funny when he was a twenty-something but is starting to seem just a bit creepy now that he's a married man in his mid-forties. Miller's sixth studio album, 2015's The Traveler, once again finds the Serial Lady Killer sharing the details of his troubles with the opposite sex, sometimes in a manner that's funny and charming ("Most in the Summertime" and "Kiss Me on the Fire Escape," both of which feel like potential singles) and sometimes leaving us no choice than to think he must know better by now ("My Little Disaster" concerns an alcoholic party girl who, if she's Miller's age, should be in the hospital by now; and in "Wicked Things" he tries to sweetly convince a woman he's no more corrupt than she is, an uncomfortable means of seduction if there ever were such a thing). While there's no denying that Miller writes well about his favorite theme, there are a few moments on The Traveler where he needs to find a new obsession, or at very least start chasing more age-appropriate women. Musically, though, The Traveler is one of Miller's most satisfying solo efforts to date; on these sessions, he was accompanied by Black Prairie, a band featuring several members of the Decemberists on a busman's holiday, and their atmospheric sound, full of fiddles, accordions, mandolins, and rolling drums, gives his melodies a flavor that's rootsy but not necessarily country (and very different from the Old 97's), and their harmonies blend beautifully with Miller's lead vocals. (Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey also pop up on a few songs, adding some welcome jangle.) Most of the songs on The Traveler pass muster, and a few are excellent, but it's Miller's interaction with Black Prairie that really makes the album work. They ought to collaborate on a follow-up about a mildly reluctant but essentially faithful husband living in Austin. At least in theory, it should come natural to him. ~ Mark Deming