Who is Nashvilles Happy Married Couple? If you said Faith and Tim, youre probably wrong. Or at least you should be. Buddy and Julie Miller seem to do everything together, including touring. Buddy recorded and played guitar on Julies recent, exceptional Broken Things. Now, on Cruel Moon, its Buddys turn. Julie co-wrote all of Buddys original songs (six of the albums 11 tracks, plus one which she wrote by herself) and sang on three of them as well, although I imagine she was present, Yoko-like, for the entire recording.
Buddy and Julie are both disciples of "hard country," "alt.country," or "Americana" (purists probably will tell you that there are differences between them, but its all still country to me). The universal theme of the genre is its rejection of slick, commercial Nashville country-pop in favor of honest, down-home music made by honest, down-home folks. To borrow from another pop idiom, they keep it real.
If authenticity extends to the lyrics as well as the music, then theres a weird dynamic going on in the Miller household. All of the songs on Cruel Moon, with the exception of the finale, are real downers, dwelling as they do on relationships about to go, going, or having gone bad. Really bad. For example, on the first track, the Miller-Miller penned "Does My Ring Burn Your Finger," the protagonist asks the wife he just stabbed to death "Did my ring burn your finger? Did my love wear you down? Was the promise too much to keep around?" Not exactly Goffen-King, but then look what happened to them. I havent heard so much matrimonial angst recorded by real spouses since Richard and Linda Thompson sang "Did She Jump or Was She Pushed" on their masterpiece Shoot Out the Lights nearly 20 years ago.
"Love Match," written by Paul Kennerley, has a Buddy Holly-by-way-of-Nick Lowe bounciness to it, but compares a relationship, unfavorably, to a championship prize fight. "Looking for A Heartache Like You" is a guy-about-to-meet-girl-and-hed-be-better-off-if-he-didnt honky-tonk classic. "Somewhere Trouble Dont Go" serves up its heartbreak with a Bo Diddley beat, while Steve Earles "Im Not Getting Better at Goodbye" is a steel-guitar weeper. Only the final track, Roebuck Staples "Its Been A Change," a spiritual soul rocker, leaves the Heartbreak Hotel, although its questionable whether the aforementioned change is going to be for the better.
Buddy Millers guitar work is tasteful and understated, and he has surrounded himself with some excellent musicians and singers (including such alt.country regulars as Emmylou Harris, for whom he plays guitar in her band; Steve Earle; and Jim Lauderdale). The arrangements are crisp and precise, with little or no overdubbing, and everything from the rockers to the crooners sound as they should. Buddys voice is a bit reedy and has a pronounced country twang (odd for someone who grew up in New Jersey), which results in a unique sound when he harmonizes with Julies schoolgirl-on-helium warble. Of the four non-original songs on the album, the only one that doesnt work is the Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil self-pity war-horse "Im Gonna Be Strong," which is probably the case because it didnt chase Cyndi Laupers lung-busting version out of my head.
Cruel Moon is a fine hard country album. Its power is diminished only because the pathos in the songs apparently is not reflective of the Millers relationship. Still, it may very well strike a raw nerve about yours. Try saying that about the joint artistic endeavors of most show business marriages. You are now free to go back to your Sonny and Cher reruns.
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