We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Even at its best, Rhett Miller’s songwriting doesn’t exactly try not to call attention to itself. But with last year’s stellar Satellite Rides, the most recent album from his longtime band, Old 97’s, the head could marvel at the machinery that was dragging the heart around without having to get in its way. By contrast, the songs on Miller’s new solo disc, The Instigator, manage to seem both underthought and overwritten—the hallmark of a wiseguy working too fast—leaving me both unmoved and unimpressed. I know a tune’s in trouble when I find myself working lyrical punch-up on it the first time I hear it, and I’ll still be thinking of “the dress you wore when you broke my jaw” when Miller plays “Come Around” live. The pivotal lines of “Your Nervous Heart” so clearly follow the scansion of a better-known “heart” song that it comes as no surprise to learn that Ol’ Hank was glowering at our hero from the cover of a piece of sheet music as he wrote it. Miller’s defenders prick up their ears as they once did to the scratching of New Wave’s sharpest pens, but I just keep thinking of one Elvis Costello interview where he was showing off his chops, throwing down quirky quatrains on whatever subject was slung at him. He produced no keepers, of course, simply rhymes you’d give away like motel matches. So though there’s a chance that Miller’s latest efforts will flare up nicely from the stage—don’t expect the light to last too long. He plays with the Damnwells at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 12, at the Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW. $12. (202) 667-7960. (Glenn Dixon)