SOLD OUT - 91.3fm WYEP Presents Rhett Miller with Special Guest Black Prairie
Saturday, January 19, 2013 - 8:00pm doors / 9:00pm show
"It's a grown-up record," Rhett Miller says of his extraordinary new album, "The Dreamer." "It takes a long time to feel the confidence to step up and be the boss. I finally feel like I'm there."
Rhett Miller has made a number of fine solo albums over his long, illustrious career, but none have felt quite as exemplary as "The Dreamer." A collection of "simple American songs and instrumentation," the album marks the second release on Miller's own Maximum Sunshine Records as well as the singer/songwriter's first foray into self-production. Sparsely arranged but animated with unrefined energy and emotion, songs like "Out Of Love" and "Swimmin' In Sunshine" join together elements of classic country, indie folk, and chamber pop, bridging the space between Miller's harder rocking work with the Old 97's and the inventive complexity of his brilliant solo career.
"It's a tricky thing," Miller says, "making a solo career work simultaneously with a band. On the first solo records, I made a real point to differentiate them sonically from what the Old 97's do. I don't feel so defensive about it anymore. I can make solo records without feeling like I have to walk on eggshells for anybody."
Despite the Old 97's prolificacy in recent years -- including five studio albums over the last decade -- Miller found himself with a cache of material that didn't necessarily work within the rather ornery confines of the band. The songs all had a common thread which marked them as too temperate for the 97's and yet more traditional roots-rock than anything Miller had done on prior solo records.
"I love to write songs," Miller says. "I love words and I love the stories you can tell in three minutes. This stack of songs seemed so natural and organic and I just wanted to play 'em."
Miller decided to take an appropriately naturalistic approach towards the songs by producing them on his own. Having previously teamed with such top studio hands as George Drakoulias and longtime collaborator Jon Brion, he felt sure that he had the requisite chops to stand behind the helm of his own sessions.
"I kept explaining to people -- management, the labels, the other musicians -- what I hear and what I want to create," Miller says, "and it occurred to me, 'Why am I depending on somebody else to realize the vision that I have when I could just as easily bring it to fruition myself?'"
In September 2011, Miller set to work at Dreamland Studios in pastoral West Hurley, New York, just south of Woodstock. His first move as a producer was to surround himself with "people that take care of their own business, that bring their own brilliance to the table." With that in mind, Miller assembled a top flight team comprised of engineer Kevin McMahon (Real Estate, Titus Andronicus) and his longtime road band, The Serial Lady Killers -- guitarist Tommy Borscheid, bassist Greg Beshers, and drummer Angela Webster -- as well as a roster of guest players including pedal steel guitarist Rich Hinman (Ben Kweller, Matt Keating), keyboardist Joe McGinty (Nada Surf, Stew & The Negro Problem), and Miller's upstate NY neighbor, legendary percussionist Jerry Marotta (Peter Gabriel, Hall & Oates).
Having worked together since touring behind 2006's "The Believer," the core band's simpatico connection helped streamline Miller's first venture into production. Their tacit communication allowed him to track much of the record completely live, invigorating the material with freewheeling vibrancy and high spirits.
"It was just natural and easy," he says. "Everybody got along so well. The sessions weren't terribly long because we weren't going crazy with overdubs, we weren't trying to make anything overly perfect, so it went more quickly than any record I'd ever been a part of. The only downside was that we were having so much fun, it seemed like it ended too soon."
While Miller's initial goal had been to follow last year's self-released collection of covers, "The Interpreter: Live At Largo," with a similarly stripped-down sound, it became evident these new songs warranted more of "a backbone." He adopted an effervescent pop/rock approach akin to such current fave combos as Dawes, David Wax Museum and The Head and The Heart, surrounding his own acoustic guitar and vocals with lilting arrangements and an array of female harmonies. Among the talented women adding their voices to the proceedings are Rachael Yamagata, Heather Robb (of NYC-based folk-pop combo, The Spring Standards), and the great Rosanne Cash, who is featured on the co-written duet, "As Close As I Came To Being Right." Recording vocals for the latter track stands out as a particular highlight for Miller, who is justifiably jubilant at how perfectly he and Cash meshed.
"As soon as we finished, we looked at each other and went, 'Oh my god, we really click,'" Miller says. "Sometimes you can have two voices and they don't necessarily go that well together. But she and I? Ours do."
Teaming with Cash prompted Miller to "stretch his wings" via more collaborations, including songwriting partnerships with Jude Cole ("I'll Try To") and Ben Kweller, who lent his distinctive style to the buoyant album opener, "Lost Without You."
"Ben is such a positive guy," Miller says, "such a cheerleader. Getting to write with him was really fun. That song sets the tone for the whole record -- there's a lot going on but it's still very simple. Straightforward folk music with a bunch of words and a good backbeat."
The earthy country pop of "The Dreamer" is ideally matched by the plaintive characterizations and the nuanced craftsmanship of a master tunesmith. Having loosely structured the album to create a somewhat illusory impression of loss, disconnection, and eventual redemption, Miller consciously infused "The Dreamer" with a subtle sense of the unconscious.
"There's a very dreamlike quality to what's going on in these songs," he says. "There's a sonic quality, of gently loping rhythms, and all these lyrics that are realistic but somewhat disjointed."
Those off-kilter observations distinguish such songs as "Out of Love," which was inspired by the big beats blaring in the breakfast room of a hipster boutique hotel but ultimately morphed into Miller's "answer to what a hit pop song would sound like in my perfect world." Elsewhere, "Picture This" serves as the album's tender heart. Co-written with the aforementioned Spring Standards -- whose 2008 EP he co-produced -- the track expertly exemplifies the album's bucolic soulfulness and spirit.
"It's a song about growing up, getting married, having a couple of kids, and how unlikely the whole thing seems," Miller says. "They had written some really sweet lyrics, then I brought the value of my experience with regards to that specific situation and we were able to come up with this song together."
A similar merging of sagacity and ingenuousness can be said to sum up "The Dreamer," its smart, skilled songwriting balanced and brought to life by a playful spontaneity and its creator's hard-earned confidence. Having taken the reins into his own hands, Rhett Miller has crafted what feels like a milestone in his unquestionably robust oeuvre, a definitive portrait of the artist at his autonomous best.
"I loved making this album so much," he says enthusiastically, "seeing the ease with which it can be done. Doing this myself, on my own label, with all these friends, it was a dream come true.
On Black Prairie's debut, "Feast of the Hunters' Moon," listeners caught an introduction to the broad musical inclinations of The Decemberists members Chris Funk, Nate Query and Jenny Conlee and fellow Portland musicians Annalisa Tornfelt and Jon Neufeld, classic instrumental string-band tones mixing with the vibrant bounce of Romani music and bursts of Tornfelt vocal-led pop.
The new "A Tear in the Eye is a Wound in the Heart" -- out September 18, 2012 via Sugar Hill Records -- goes far deeper than an introduction, offering a more intimate, layered look into the five bandmates' predilections and abilities, and a snapshot of a group that's grown from a side project into a focused, full-fledged band.
Funk and Query initially hatched the idea for Black Prairie as a way to explore instrumental string band music during The Decemberists' downtime, and those beginnings aren't absent on "A Tear in the Eye." But the growth from idea into five-part whole is immediately present, as Tornfelt's sweetly harmonied pop takes more of the foreground, and the band digs deeper into the traditions studied on their debut.
The overriding focus in writing "A Tear in the Eye," Neufeld says, was simply to follow each member's creative impulses, in whatever stylistic form they took.
"I don't feel like there's any boundaries in this band at all," he says. "That feeling of freedom, of, 'Yeah, let's do that, let's do this.' It's pretty free-flowing in that way."
The album offers something of an accidental roadmap pointing toward what and who inspired many of those impulses, too. A The Band-esque brand of loose-groove, heart-forward Americana drives "Richard Manuel"; the bandmates trade exultant bluegrass leads through "For the Love of John Hartford"; and the kind of energetic gallop that permeates the music of famed Romani group Taraf de Haidouks stomps through Black Prairie's "Taraf." Other "A Tear in the Eye" inspirations come through a little more veiled -- like the impulse that sparked album track "34 Wishes," which Query says started under the working title "Metal Song."
"We were trying to make, 'What would a heavy metal song sound like on these instruments?'" he says, laughing, of the song's early collaborative genesis alongside Neufeld. "He came to my house and we literally opened my computer, listened to Mastodon and stole riffs from them, put them through the lens of Dobro and acoustic guitar."
That kind of marked eclecticism makes for an album of quick, wide twists and turns, and to Funk, also makes "A Tear in the Eye" a wholly honest picture of who the members of Black Prairie are.
"I think it's all of our influences and all of us," Funk says. "In this day and age people say, 'It's a singles market, people aren't listening to albums as much anymore and they're listened to things on shuffle.' To me, this is like a great shuffle. It's our iPods on shuffle, for sure."
And while you can't necessarily draw a definitive line between "A Tear in the Eye" tracks and a certain member's music collection, accordion player/singer Conlee recognizes how individual sonic strengths and loves build up the whole of Black Prairie.
"I think each of us has their tendencies -- maybe I like to do the music that has more of an accordion style, like trying to do a French song," she says. "I think Jon tends to have a little more of a bluegrass edge. Funk is probably the most eclectic of everybody. But we all have a lot of variation in what we do and like."
One inclination all five members share: a desire and willingness to produce in-the-moment, fully alive music, free of the hyper-polishing and retouching that can blunt a recording's humanity. The band tracked "A Tear in the Eye" with "Hunters' Moon" producer Tucker Martine (The Decemberists, Death Cab for Cutie), start to finish, over the course of 10 days, eschewing hemming and hawing for energy and experimentation.
"We just moved quick," Funk says, "and it's really refreshing about this band, to let the real personalities come through and not worry about Auto-Tuning and hyper-punching notes, and, 'Is that completely in tune?' It's rough. It sounds like who we are as real musicians."
As musicians, the members of Black Prairie have been keeping plenty busy beyond working on A Tear in the Eye and with their other bands, too. In early 2012, the band paired with the Oregon Children's Theatre, composing music for the play "The Storm in the Barn." For 2012's Record Store Day in April, they issued a limited-edition 7-inch record featuring collaborations with The Shins' James Mercer and Sallie Ford of Sallie Ford and The Sound Outside.
The latter project launched Black Prairie's ongoing "Singers" EP series, which will feature songwriting team-ups with an array of friendly voices, with new releases coming in natural bursts, as Black Prairie and their co-conspirators' schedules allow. (Releases with Martha Scanlan and Langhorne Slim are already in the works.)
Those free-flowing collaborations just extend the approach the members take with Black Prairie.
"One of the things I appreciate so much about this group is how much it's truly collaborative," Query says. "It's really easy, because everybody trusts each other and is excited about each others' skills and unique superpowers. It's always really exciting -- you never know what's going to happen."
& Ticket Giveaways
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