The Interpreter: Live at Largo
(Maximum Sunshine; 2011)
By Maura McAndrew | 5 December 2011
Over the past ten years, Rhett Miller could easily be considered one of the hardest working men in rock ’n’ roll, releasing three solo records, four with the Old 97’s, and touring pretty much ‘round the clock. He knows what it takes to be an employed musician—this is his job, after all, and he still pushes himself, still challenges himself to keep going. The Rhett Millers of the world are a rare breed these days: middle aged men who’ve never quite gotten to that critical and commercial sweet spot, toiling away regardless, because they love what they do. Hell, Miller’s second solo album was even called The Believer (2006); this is a man who has a fervent faith in the power of rock music. And that belief, however reckless, certainly comes through on The Interpreter: Live at Largo, a collection of cover songs recorded over two nights at the now-relocated LA institution.
Miller is a good songwriter and a charismatic performer, but yet his solo career, a fairly recent endeavor, has been uneven and occasionally bland, while his songs with Old 97’s seem sharper, carried along on the band’s trademark frenzied energy. In fact, listening to The Interpreter, one must resist the urge to compare it to his band’s exhilarating live record Alive and Wired (2005), a different animal entirely. Live at Largo features Miller playing with his solo sound, paying homage to his heroes; if not exactly a moving showcase of his talent, the record is still spontaneous, even silly, and impossible to dislike.
Recorded in April 2008, it’s composed entirely of covers of the classic and indie rock variety; as on most of Miller’s solo work, there’s not much alt-country found here. He makes no attempt to hide his reverence for classic British rock artists like Bowie, the Beatles, and the Kinks, introducing his simple cover of “Waterloo Sunset” by nervously gushing that it’s “the greatest song ever written by a human being.” It’s just Rhett and his guitar for about half of the songs, but Jon Brion steps in for the assist on the others, adding piano and a much fuller sense of atmosphere. On Miller’s nuanced version of the Pixies’ “Wave of Mutilation,” special guest Joey Santiago himself steps in for some brief, righteous acoustic shredding.
It shouldn’t be surprising, given Miller’s uneven track record as a solo flyer, that the best songs on the interpreter are collaborations with Brion: the Beatles “I’ll Cry Instead,” Robyn Hitchcock’s “Cynthia Mask,” and Bowie’s “The Bewlay Brothers.” It’s not just that his somewhat forceful voice works best with a girthier sound, but that Miller’s boundless eagerness as a performer is tempered some by company. “The Bewlay Brothers” in particular nails a certain combination of giddiness and drama; Miller and Brion are playful, but have clearly done their homework. Likewise, “I’ll Cry Instead,” one of the more upbeat tracks on the record, harnesses that special energy Miller is so adept at bringing on stage with the Old 97’s.
What leads occasionally to Miller’s downfall, as they say, is his unbridled enthusiasm in tackling the classic rock canon. When he bursts into “Queen Bitch,” for example, it’s cringe-inducing in such a way that one wishes Miller would step back and ask himself, “Is this really working?” (I don’t think even Bowie could pull off an acoustic “Queen Bitch.”) “American Girl” suffers a similar fate, sounding like it always does when someone besides Tom Petty busts out a guitar and tries to play “American Girl,” which: weirdly uncool. These are songs Miller just can’t make his own—but he tries unabashedly, and he almost makes up for it with surprises like Elliott Smith’s “Happiness,” which sounds, comfortably, like a song Miller wrote himself.
Rhett Miller could never be accused of being insincere: in winning the crowd over, in being effusively funny and charming, in doing what it takes to keep his music afloat. The Interpreter may be a slight addition to his body of work, but Rhett Miller is, and will always be, a believer. And at the end of this record, at the end of the show, it’s such love and dedication we can feel, palpably after the past couple years, spilling from that stage in LA.