February 2000

Buddy Miller - Cruel Moon
HighTone HCD8111
Released: 1999

by Marc Rigrodsky

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

[Reviewed on CD]Who is Nashville’s Happy Married Couple? If you said Faith and Tim, you’re 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 Julie’s recent, exceptional Broken Things.  Now, on Cruel Moon, it’s Buddy’s turn. Julie co-wrote all of Buddy’s original songs (six of the album’s 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 it’s 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 there’s 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 haven’t 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-he’d-be-better-off-if-he-didn’t honky-tonk classic. "Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go" serves up its heartbreak with a Bo Diddley beat, while Steve Earle’s "I’m Not Getting Better at Goodbye" is a steel-guitar weeper. Only the final track, Roebuck Staples’ "It’s Been A Change," a spiritual soul rocker, leaves the Heartbreak Hotel, although it’s questionable whether the aforementioned change is going to be for the better.

Buddy Miller’s 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. Buddy’s 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 Julie’s schoolgirl-on-helium warble. Of the four non-original songs on the album, the only one that doesn’t work is the Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil self-pity war-horse "I’m Gonna Be Strong," which is probably the case because it didn’t chase Cyndi Lauper’s 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.