Welcome back the CD Odyssey! I don’t know about you, but it is like I never left. Since I’m always listening to something that I’m preparing to review, for me it’s true.
Despite the constant effort, with 20 new albums in my collection from my holiday, the new section of my collection is more backlogged than ever. So after a brief dalliance with Neil Diamond (thanks for the memories, Neil) let’s get into something relatively new (to me), shall we?
Disc 1054 is…Broken Things
Artist: Julie Miller
Year of Release: 1999
What’s up with the Cover? This cover is very of its time, from the see-through blouse all the way down to the boring font. 1999 was not a great year in fashion.
How I Came To Know It: One of the many albums I learned about reading Paste Magazine’s “Top 100 Indie Folk Albums” where it came in at #54. I had about 20 of those albums when I read the list, and now I’ve got 36 and a whole lot of side purchases besides. That damned list has cost me a lot of money.
How It Stacks Up: This is my only Julie Miller album, and I don’t have any plans at this point to get any more, so it can’t stack up.
Ratings: 3 stars
Sometimes you can recognize an album for its greatness and for whatever reasons it doesn’t grab you like you know it should. That was my reaction to “Broken Things” which is a solid piece of work marred only by my personal preferences around vocals and production.
Miller is one of those artists that has been around forever, and is heavily respected by other musicians. This album is proof of that, with guest appearances by Emmylou Harris, Victoria Williams, Steve Earle and Patty Griffin. However, like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, while Miller is heavily respected by insiders, she doesn’t get a lot of love on the charts. Fortunately that never stopped me from loving an artist – I don’t even listen to the radio, let alone care which songs are in heavy rotation.
“Broken Things” is a mix of styles, blending rock, pop and contemporary folk. The song constructions are very much the latter, but the way the songs are arranged and performed scream pop, and that’s how I’m going to tag the entry.
Miller is a gifted songwriter, and she understands how to build an interesting melody that serves the mood of the story she’s telling. The plaintive chorus of “I Know Why the River Runs” pulls at your heartstrings and bluesy excess of “Strange Lover” is exactly the right mix of suggestive, dreamy and aggressive to paint a portrait of unhealthy relationships and drug abuse.
The album covers a lot of emotional ground, and much as the album title promises, gets into a lot of broken things – mostly hearts and spirit. There is a lot of darkness on this record, and I imagine it would make for a very satisfying wallow if that’s where you’re at in your life when you first hear it.
Unfortunately, I don’t love Miller’s vocals. She sings better than Van Zandt or Clark ever could, but those guys write songs where vocal prowess doesn’t matter much. These songs are more like Patty Griffin or Emmylou Harris tunes, but I found myself wishing they were singing them instead. Miller also has a bit of waifish girl in her voice, which at its best can sound haunting and vulnerable, but can also sound affected or indistinct.
The bigger issue is the late nineties production, lush and full and aimlessly making noise in every direction. The bass and drums thud dull and empty and the beautiful piano and guitar work is buried in the jungle of sound that passed for “full bodied” back in the day. It was the sound of all albums back then, but as someone who likes a crisp sound with plenty of space, I have a hard time getting past it.
Worst of all, the production drowns out some great guest backup vocals by Patty and Emmylou. If you’re going to have those people sing on your record, I want to hear them better. Emmylou is welcome on "Two Soldiers" at the beginning, but the song adds a bit too much noise as it moves along. All that interference was the musical equivalent of trying to enjoy a barbecued steak while also having to shoo a wasp away from your plate the whole time. Steve Earle appears on “Strange Lover” with much greater impact, but it would be impossible to keep Steve back in the mix when you’re singing about broken hearts and cocaine. That’s his wheelhouse.
In terms of songwriting, I would give this album four stars, but the two star production drags it back to the middle of the pack. Still, on balance it is still worthy of a place on the CD shelves, and the occasional listen down the road as well.
Best tracks: I Know Why the River Runs, I Still Cry, Broken Things, Speed of Light