Paul Westerberg is often held up as the gold standard of indie songwriting for the smart, rebellious melancholia he wedded to the Replacements' ragged rock, but a far better exemplar is Old 97s frontman Rhett Miller. But in spite of the canny wit of his Delillo-inspired "World Inside the World" and the literate, rumbling rave-up "Our Love," Miller's much-awaited solo debut, The Instigator
, failed to achieve commercial impact, although it was well written and far superior to subsequent Old 97s albums.
Miller's solo follow-up, The Believer, feels a bit canned by comparison. But crisper, acoustic versions of several of the songs -- available elsewhere -- suggest that the magic got lost in the studio gloss. Like watching a friend go through a painful surgery, one hopes Miller will recover soon and get back to offering his deft, thoughtful country-rock on an indie label more appreciative of his gift.