While Buddy and Julie Miller have been busy, if not frantic, producing their own albums (this is his fourth, her seventh), writing songs for others (Emmylou Harris, most prominently), and appearing individually and together on a host of alterna-country classics, this is the first album the couple has released under joint billing.
And it's a good 'un. Buddy's gruff voice -- sounding at times as though he's channeling Levon Helm -- and Julie's little-girl croon blend together like bourbon and branch-water, giving every song here a pure potency that sounds exactly right, whether backed up by a wall of buzzing guitars or with just a fiddle and banjo.
The album starts with a blistering rendition of Richard Thompson's "Keep Your Distance." Oh, did I say it was Richard Thompson's? He just wrote it -- it belongs to Buddy and Julie Miller now.
Another standout is "Dirty Water," a moody dissertation on forbidden love that tips its hat to the doom-laden intensity of the Staple Singers at their finest. "You've got a lie underneath your tongue, where it can't be seen/And you wanna put the truth on a guillotine/But you might as well put out a fire with gasoline/Well, you serve up dirty water from a golden cup/You can try to lock up the truth but the door won't shut/'Cause the truth just comes out like blood from a cut."
The album is filled with songs that hark back to the murder ballads and mean ol' blues of the old weird America -- that dark, twisted place that produced songs like "The Coo Coo Bird" and "Sugar Baby." In Utah Philips' "Rock Salt and Nails," the Millers sing, "Now if the ladies were blackbirds and the ladies were thrushes/I'd lie there for hours in the chilly cold marshes/If the ladies were squirrels with them big bushy tails/I'd load up my shotgun with rock salt and nails."
Yet the album's not all darkness and unrequited love. The Millers assay a lovely "Wallflower," not to mention Julie's "You Make My Heart Beat Too Fast" -- one of those songs that sounds as though you've loved it for years on first hearing: "You make my heart beat too fast/You make me want this to last/ You make me spend all my money/Oh, I think I love you, honey." Shades of "Wild Thing."
Joined by a rotating assortment of musicians, including Buddy's Spyboy bandmates Brian Blades and Emmylou Harris, the Millers has produced an album that ranges from pure rock'n'roll thrash to full-blooded country stomp. The playing is immaculate and the muscular sound is superb -- complete with deep bass, natural harmonics, and soaring harmonies. Perfectionists looking for realistic soundstaging need not apply, but that's so minor a quibble it has never entered my mind while the disc is actually playing. Besides, which would you rather do to your music -- look at it or dance to it? And Buddy & Julie Miller will definitely have you shuckin' and jivin', dippin' and swayin'.
Is it rock, country, alterna-funk? Who cares? Like Buddy Miller's two preceding records, Cruel Moon and Poison Love, before it, Buddy & Julie Miller never strays too far from my to-be-played pile. It turns out that no matter what time of day it is, when it comes music this good, it's always Miller time.
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