- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Rhett Miller and his tour band The Believers will be downtown tonight at the Black Cat recreating his new solo album, “The Believer,” and it should be worth the trip.

Where else would you have a chance to hear someone use “plate tectonics” in a love song?

It’s clear from the very first song that Mr. Miller, lead singer-songwriter for alt-country’s the Old 97’s, is not making an alt-country album this time. This is pure unadulterated pop music at its finest, and Mr. Miller evokes everyone from David Bowie and Elvis Costello to T. Rex and maybe even a little Moody Blues.

Like any good set of pop songs, love (and thinly veiled lust) and its ups and downs are the themes, and Mr. Miller examines all the positives and negatives.

This is Mr. Miller’s second album and only a side trip from his part of the successful run of the Old 97’s, one of the most popular bands on the rock ‘n’ roll side of alt-country music. For Mr. Miller this is a chance to step away from the style of the Old 97’s.

“Some songs I wrote specifically knowing that I was going to be making a solo record,” says Mr. Miller. ” ‘Brand New Way’ is very much the kind of song I don’t see the Old 97’s ever doing. I was only able to let go and write it knowing that I had this other outlet for it.”

From the beginning of the process, Mr. Miller had a very different sound in mind for this album.

“I kind of had a feeling that the whole album would be a little bit more of that loud kind of glammy intense rock ‘n’ roll,” Mr. Miller says.

It definitely has some of that T. Rex and David Bowie (Ziggy Stardust) quality, with many star and space images in songs like “Meteor Shower” and “I’m With Her.” But it also has the clever hooks and punchy bounce of Elvis Costello.

One quality Mr. Miller has carried over from his writing for the Old 97’s is his ability to temper heavy or dark themes.

“That’s always been a trick I’ve used, where you take a subject that’s kind of heavy or dark and couch it in something sunshiny sounding,” he says. “Something that’s kind of bouncing and fun.”

Mr. Miller has made sure things are not all dark. “I really felt like I was trying to balance it all out,” he says. “Have some moments of hopeful love songs, and then other moments where you can wrestle with the darker side of it all.”

• • •

In the world of Celtic music, Solas has always made its own way. The group, whose name means “light” in Gaelic, can play an old-time reel or a jig and make it feel as traditional as a 100-year-old pub in Dublin. Given their choice, they will climb on to the tradition and reach beyond to something more exciting and creative.

Taking the stage at the Birchmere Wednesday on their 10th anniversary tour, they’re looking back at what has put them in the contemporary Celtic music elite.

“We looked at everything from more contemporary material, to writing more stuff ourselves, to incorporating more non-traditional elements and instruments into the repertoire as well,” says leader Seamus Egan. “It was a combination of new blood coming into the band and ourselves wanting to challenge ourselves.”

Even though the “new blood” has been with the band for several years, the band is always looking to be challenged by choice of material. It may be by the intricate embellishments that they layer onto classic Celtic pieces, or it may be original material from any member of the band, all talented songwriters.

“Everyone in the band does an awful lot of writing,” Mr. Egan says. “When we start thinking about a record, everything gets kind of thrown on the table and then we sort of sift through everything and see what makes sense next to the material. There might be something we all like, but it might not sit all that nicely with something else.”

Another thing that makes Solas distinct in contemporary Celtic music is that the band chooses songs from completely outside the Celtic tradition. Over their seven critically acclaimed albums, they have covered songs written by the likes of Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Jesse Colin Young and Woody Guthrie.

“If it’s something that hits us in a certain way, it’s really a matter of sitting down with it and seeing if it’s something we can actually pull off, if we can do justice to the song and also still make it sound like it’s us doing it,” Mr. Egan says. “Sometimes the two don’t always meet in a pleasant spot.”

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