The Traveler isn’t your average solo effort, where the frontman of a well-known act assembles some studio musicians to record the tunes that didn’t make the cut with his bandmates. For the backing band on his sixth studio album, Rhett Miller enlisted Black Prairie, the multi-instrumental, Americana-folk outfit from the Portland music scene (Decemberists, Jackstraw and Deloreans).
Miller usually reserves his sweeter, more pop-oriented material for solo projects. In contrast, his last outing with Old 97’s, Most Messed Up, was a raucous, expletive-laced romp. But this record finds him straddling genres from hipster hoedown to lush symphony. “Wanderlust” twangs with fiddle and accordion, and “Most in the Summertime” adds a touch of ragtime piano. But they seamlessly yield to pop masterpieces, like the beautifully orchestrated “Jules” and wall-of-sound “Escape Velocity.” “Dreams vs. Waking Life” is a Felliniesque anti-lullaby, and the energy on “Kiss Me on the Fire Escape” could easily fit in the Old 97’s catalog — though it’s brightened here with Annalisa Tornfelt’s (Bearfoot) pretty backing vocals.
The themes are familiar territory for Miller — love and longing — but these songs are less emotionally desperate than 2009’s Rhett Miller and more adventurous than 2012’s The Dreamer. With Decemberist Chris Funk on producer duties and an appearance by superstar guest Peter Buck of R.E.M., the result is a textured and nuanced backdrop for the clever songwriting and charming performance we’ve come to expect from this Dallas-turned-New York artist. — CINDY ROYAL