Buddy & Julie Miller
Breakdown on 20th Avenue South
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
You can’t really consider the first set Buddy and Julie Miller have recorded together in 10 years a reunion since they have never stopped being married. Still, Julie was conspicuously MIA (due in part to health issues) during that period and Buddy was busy with other projects, so this reignited musical combination has been a long time coming.
The album is especially welcome because Julie pens all dozen tracks (one is co-written) and her unique voice has been greatly missed — both vocally and compositionally — on the Americana landscape. Perhaps sensing this, Buddy Miller takes a backseat, at least vocally. Even though he plays all the acoustic and electric guitar parts (the two are often overdubbed), he gives Julie the bulk of the lead vocals, appearing occasionally as a frontman but more often as his wife’s harmony voice.
The predominantly stripped down but not skeletal music finds its groove early; the opening title track lays down a mid-tempo folksy swamp rock base with subtle, thumping percussion that the rest of the songs pretty much mirror. But even though the vibe might be similar, these songs never feel repetitious. The subject matter typically concerns matters of the heart, yet are expressed with the experience of a 40-year marriage. The two explore the complexities of love as they harmonize on “Spittin’ On Fire” with “Love comes in so sweet at first/Like a gentle rain/But when it does its damage/It hits like a hurricane.” On the slow, bluesy “Unused Heart,” Miller sounds like she’s singing to herself in a cracked, delicate voice (“Is love exclusive or just elusive/It’s undeniable, it’s unreliable”) above Buddy’s softly picked guitar.
The dark folk of “Feast Of The Dead” looks at spiritual issues (“Think about the things unseen”) and “War Child” unpacks the subject of refugees with spellbinding candor (“Is there anyone who remembers your name/War Child no one knows who you are”). The duo takes inspiration from Lucinda Williams on the tough, grinding “Underneath The Sky,” where Julie growls “I’m breaking down the walls/I’m kicking in the door/Not gonna stop ‘til I find out what I’m down here for.” Some basic tracks were recorded in the couple’s bedroom (upstairs from Buddy’s home studio) which brings additional raw intensity to songs that are already riveting in their exploration of the ups and downs of relationships. The combination of Buddy’s husky rumble and Julie’s lighter but still incisive approach makes for an explosive vocal blend. There is no filler in these dozen tunes (over 50 were written, from which they chose the best) that remind us what we’ve missed in the decade since the couple last recorded together. It’s a continuation of a musical and personal partnership that’s entrancing, honest and one that makes for a mesmerizing listen.