For his debut solo release, Rhett Miller (frontman for the Old 97s) seems to have pushed his twangy alt-country roots to the side in favor of a more universally palatable sound. The Instigator heads straight into pop-rock territory, an area usually scoffed at by musicians from less recognized genres (i.e. alt-country).
For the most part, The Instigator sounds like it would fit quite well on the local modern-rock station's playlist, or MTV rotation. The melodies are upbeat and catchy, the guitars are bright, and the vocals are clear and well-delivered. Songs like "Our Love" and "I Want to Live" flow along the standard Matchbox 20/Vertical Horizon vein, with a somewhat less slickly-produced sound.
Even so, mixed in with Miller's pop sensibilities, one can still detect the occasional hint of his redeeming alt-country influences. You can take the rockstar out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the rockstar? Throughout The Instigator, traces of Old 97s-style rock come through in the occasional guitar twang, or in the resonance of a fortuitous heartfelt lyrical delivery. "Four-Eyed Girl" calls to mind the laid-back, country-inspired pop-rock of The Refreshments, while "The El," probably the most engaging song of the album, expertly mixes rockabilly guitar riffs, light, upbeat drums, and great barbershop-like backup vocals.
Overall, the better songs on the album are those that incorporate Miller's experience with alt-country aesthetics. The rest of the album is easy enough to listen to, but lacks a bit in originality.
Archived article by Thea Brown