By Jef With One F
By Rocks Off
By Chris Lane
By Angelica Leicht
By Corey Deiterman
By Angelica Leicht
By Corey Deiterman
Turns out on his last album -- the sweeping, stunningly good Virginia-based song cycle Thus Always to Tyrants -- the audience didn't always make it all the way there. Sure, they got off on the music, but when he sang about obscure Civil War battles and über-abolitionist John Brown "dancing on the long end of a rope," they weren't always with him.
Upside Downside, Miller's latest effort, is not quite so much a song cycle, though geography does bind the songs loosely. It's a bit of tribute to his second home: the state of Tennessee, or at least a city or two in it. The album was recorded in Nashville, and Memphis gets a nod in the Booker T. and the MGs-style instrumental "Chill, Relax Now," but it was a less famous Volunteer State town that inspired most of the stuff.
"I lean a little more towards Knoxville, but there wasn't that much rhyme or reason to the album," Miller says. "On Tyrants I was focused -- probably too focused, 'cause it was like 'Hey, Virginia! Who's with me? Anybody? Anybody? Anybody back there? Hello?' Musically I guess I was trying to get to my '70s AM-radio roots, which has all been done before, the album side thing's been done before."
What hasn't been done before is anything quite like this mix of music and songs. In addition to the Memphis soul stew of "Chill ," there's also Chuck Berry-style rock, '70s-style raunch-n-roll, Elvis Costello pop-rock, country rock and old-time mountain music. Tyrants producer RS Field's dramatic and occasionally Anglophile input has been replaced by Miller's own more stripped-down values, together with those of co-producer and keyboardist Eric Fritsch. All told, Upside is not as instantly gripping as Tyrants, though after a listen or three its hold proves just as strong.
If there were a state called "Appalachia," Knoxville would be the capital, and Miller has called Tennessee's third-largest city home since moving there after graduating from William & Mary in Virginia in the early '90s. The Shenandoah Valley-bred Miller says he was a pretentious little son of a gun back then.
"Oh, I was so groovy," he remembers. "I talked to an old friend of mine the other day. Back then we tried so hard to be groovy, but we were just redneck punks. So I reminded him of the old days and he was like, 'I don't know what you're talking about. I have no idea what you're referring to.' So I was like, 'Man, we had "Groovy Brothers" painted on the hood of the car!' "
Miller wrote a bunch of songs back then that he will never perform in public again. "I was really obnoxious," he remembers, and gives a private performance of one of the blacklisted tunes. "'You can call me evil / call me mean / the coal doesn't carry a human being / the worst son of a bitch you've ever seen / but at least you won't call me daddy.' And there's still people out there that remember this stuff. You couldn't sing those songs every night and keep your sanity. I don't know how Ray Stevens does it."
One song does appear on Upside Downside that even predates that era: the rowdy rocker "Pull Your Load." Of it Miller writes in the liner notes: "I had just come home from my first year away at school and wrote a song that sounded like a kid who had just had freshman English -- I think it even made reference to Samuel Beckett." ("Sartre and all that shit -- I was all about it, baby! Enlightened!" Miller tells me.) "I then walked out of a room into a speech by my father about how I needed to get some real work done around the farm. I turned around, went back into my room and wrote this."
Which goes a little something like this: "Don't ask your brother to help you / Or your sister who's been sold / She tried to make it easy / And she didn't pull her load."
Miller applies that work ethic to his career, which he sees as not a job but a calling. "I've said this all before, but there's people in the music business that want it really, really bad," he says. "They want it, they really want it. And then there's people that have to do it. They would do it whatever the critics said or if they didn't sell any records or whatever. There's a world of difference. The world doesn't owe you a goddamn living just 'cause you're in a goddamn band!"
Though Miller just turned 35, his father grew up during the depression and fought in World War II and his mother is almost as old. A certain amount of wild-eyed desperation was apparent on Tyrants -- it was probably Miller's last chance to make it as a musician before he succumbed to family pressure to get a grad school degree and the dreaded "real job." Luckily, Tyrants was a critical smash and a small commercial success.