Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Rhett Miller has taken great care in the last decade to keep his solo albums and those recorded with his rowdier, more country-influenced band the Old 97’s as two distinctly separate bodies of work. When not flanked by his alt-country bandmates, Miller embraces his more sumptuous and orchestral tendencies, often veering closer to the chamber-pop largesse of artists like Rufus Wainwright or Andrew Bird. Yet on fifth album The Dreamer, Miller has gone back to basics, re-tuning his country twang and swapping his string sections for lap steel and a trusty six-string acoustic. It’s his easiest, least labored sounding record in years, still lushly produced yet not overly fussy. When a rush of overdubs overcomes the bridge of “Swimmin’ in Sunshine,” it only serves to emphasize just how laid back and gorgeous the verses are. All two minutes of “Love Grows” are stuffed with classic country warmth, and the dark Southwestern sound of “Out of Love” recalls the Old 97’s more than any song he’s recorded since 2002’s “The El.” While Miller’s ambition extends well beyond what audiences might expect from a résumé of alt-country triumphs, when he sticks to what’s familiar, he can scarcely do wrong.