[ rock/folk ]
Rhett Miller's songs have always been full of ladies, women and girls, but aside from Rachael Yamagata's cameo on the bittersweet "Fireflies," from 2006's The Believer, and — going all the way back to 1997 — Exene Cervenka's scary-sexy turn on the Old 97's blistering "Four Leaf Clover," the female voice has largely been absent from his records.
The Dreamer, out Tuesday on Miller's own Maximum Sunshine label, rectifies that. Yamagata returns for three songs, including the dark standout "Out of Love," and Rosanne Cash appears on three others, including the twangy duet "As Close As I Came to Being Right." Heather Robb of area expats The Spring Standards sits in for six more.
"Rosanne Cash was part of the inspiration for it. She and I were writing the duet that's on the record together, and we went in and demoed it," Miller says. "I'd been thinking for a long time about singing more with women, and hearing her voice with my voice on the tape made me realize that now was the time and that this record needed to have female vocalists all over it."
A few extra voices aren't the only difference on Miller's sixth solo record. It features more slide and steel guitars than any Old 97s album, several songwriting collaborations, and relatively little studio time. Now that Miller's producing and releasing his own work, he has to keep an eye on the bottom line. That meant cutting most of the album live and adding the background vocals in a few hours.
Robb says Miller trusted her to do her thing. "He gave me a lot of creative freedom and there didn't need to be a long writing process," she says. "I just did my homework, got to the studio and made the most of the one day that I had available."
At the heart of The Dreamer is "Picture This," a reverie of domestic life befitting a married father of two. It paints a blissful scene of sweethearts whose love only grows stronger amid the demands of kids and chores. "I'm tired, but I'm not too tired for you," Miller and Robb coo.
"There's only a handful of songs that when I sing them, I occasionally get choked up. And that's one of those songs," Miller says. "It feels so specifically personal to me."
But Miller didn't write "Picture This," Robb's band did — when they were 15. Although Robb, James Smith and James Cleare are now in their late 20s and three releases into a career as The Spring Standards, they've been trading harmonies and instruments under various band names since they were kids. Smith and Cleare grew up in Kennett Square, not far from Longwood Gardens, while Robb lived across the state line in Delaware. "Picture This" dates to their days as The Urban Wombats.
"I remember writing it on my front porch in my parents' house," Smith says, "and then bringing it over to the other James and saying, 'Hey, I wrote a song!'"
Cleare added a guitar part, Robb chimed in on harmonies, and the song surfaced on their very first release, which Smith says is "virtually impossible" to track down. Fast-forward a decade. Miller was getting ready to produce the first Spring Standards EP, 2008's No One Will Know, and after running through the contenders, the trio dug out an oldie.
"They played it for me, and it was such a sweet song, I fell in love with it," Miller recalls. After determining that The Spring Standards really weren't going to do anything with it, he asked if he could rework a verse, tweak a few lines and add it to his repertoire.
"To hear someone like Rhett Miller singing a song that we all wrote when we were so young is such a strange feeling," says Smith. It's weird to watch Robb duet with another man on a song she used to sing with him, he adds, but not in a bad way.
"It brings new meaning to it," Smith says. "That's the exciting thing."
After their bicoastal tour with Miller, the New York-based trio will return to the area in August for a belated CD-release show at World Café Live at The Queen to celebrate their self-released double EP, yellow//gold.
Rhett Miller & The Serial Lady Killers and The Spring Standards play Tue., June 5, 8 p.m., $22-$38, World Café Live, 3025 Walnut St., 215-222-1400, worldcafelive.com.