by Roy Kasten
"It's a school night, and I've got a shit load of songs." It was and he does. As the spaghetti western overture faded down, Rhett Miller strapped on his Gibson Hummingbird and bounced into "This Is What I Do" from The Instigator, his strongest solo album, and began to sweat. He has a charmed life, though you wouldn't guess it from the sardonic sadomasochism of his romance-obsessed tunes. He's alt-country's Elvis Costello, if Elvis were less bookish, less political, less paunchy, and more psychotropically medicated.
Rhett is happy to be at the Duck Room, happy to be anywhere but burned out after writing a hundred or so unfailingly catchy songs over 20 odd years. The 150 or so folks in the room watched his version of the duck walk (a stuttering, backwards bunny hop, stage left and right) and the windmill (a quadruple-jointed spin of his strumming forearm, always precisely in time) and head bang (a puppy-like shake of his precious, sweaty mane). The perspiration is part of the show.
So too was opener Cassie Morgan, a young singer and songwriter, technically from St. Louis, but dwelling somewhere south of Hope Sandoval and north of Emmylou Harris. Switching between acoustic guitar and electric, Morgan kept her composure as the chattering classes threatened to crush her delicate, dreamsongs. She previewed material for a record due out at the end of April, and even tried out a lovely new composition without a name. Her songs are murder ballads where no one dies, but everything is at risk.
The audience this Thursday night, a cross-section of micro-brew bros, Alive magazine socialites and graying Americanaphiles, gave no thought to risk. The headliner was a safe entertainment bet. On the dance floor clustered the girls who couldn't get with Rhett and in back hung the guys who couldn't get with the girls who couldn't get with Rhett. As the cute Old 97, Miller might be advised to just relax, coast through a solo acoustic show, make plans for retirement and the Casino circuit, give up pop songwriting and devote himself to minimalist fiction (he's published), raise a family with his supermodel beloved, maybe knock out a video now and then to keep the eye candy junkies satisfied.
But he's good at pop, a natural, and if he only knows four chords and two tempos (punky-fast and earnest-slow), you forgive him, because he knows them well and throws everything he's got into every slight variation on the eternal themes of love and lust and suicidal ideation. "Niteclub" into "Like Love" into "No Baby I" into "Lonely Holiday" into "Singular Girl" into "Buick City Complex": the 25-plus song set zipped along, seamlessly, back and forth like his brain was on shuffle, flipping through early and late Old 97s tunes, and numbers from three solo albums, with barely a pause to sip from a drink, tune or chat. Even when he smacked down one drunken request from a woman who wished to join him in a duet (he's cuddly but professional), he was ever the sincere, geeky, spacey, and charmingly unpretentious boy next door. He's sharper and shrewder than he lets on; not letting on is the point.
The secret to Miller's songs and staying power is point of view. When he delivers the Old 97s' "Barrier Reef" (yo Elvis), with its painfully corny word play, or "If It's Not Love" (from last year's self-titled solo record), with its deliberately mixed metaphors, you have to suppress the groan and the desire to hug the singer. Miller always has it both ways. When he breaks into a sweet, cracking falsetto, he seems to be confessing his secrets but his secrets are so dorky and desperate that they barely contain emotional content. He's both exactly the embodiment of the earnest sap he portrays in his songs and exactly the opposite. His charisma, his gift for pouring it all out and pouring out some more, has taken him this far--and, in his way, he's still far from settled and done.