Hannah Miller's Tough New Record One of Year's Best

Hannah Miller
Sputnik Sound
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Think of the woman standing alone in a smoky bar at midnight–the one with the low-cut red dress who exudes desire and danger. If she made a record, it would sound like the latest from Hannah Miller. Miller states that she wanted to make a record without "coffeehouse-friendly songs." This one will certainly send the crystals-and-rainbows crowd running for cover! This is a very dark album. How dark? "Promise Land" is a reflection on the Chernobyl disaster, and it's not even close to being the hardest song of the bunch. "Been Around" might well be the album's theme song. Gothic organ notes spill out as she sings: "I ain't nobody's fool/I know what you're up to/It's not my first time out/I'm not new in town/I've been around." Later she intones: "Your words don't break my bones/I'm full of sticks and stones." Think she's kidding? "While you go down in flames/I play it cool/Cause I'm the one playing you/Like a fool."

Had you fill of little girl voices and frothy pop? Check out Miller's guttural, grown-up voice and tough songs. The dominant instrument on most of her songs is the bass—the chunkier and more ominous the better. The mood is somber, the pacing deliberate, the lighting set to low, and the mood dialed to no-nonsense. Her "Watchman" is a grim reaper, "Soothed" means she's come to terms with having come undone, and "You Don't Call" doesn't wallow: "You don't call any more/and that's fine." The closest she gets to sunny is "Outside In," the album's folkiest song, in which she tries to convince a lover that it's okay to get close. But she follows it with "Leaving," the album's grittiest song, one about a woman damaged by a broken and abusive family, betrayed trust, and so many disappointments that she's emotionally empty. "Go on and try to make me feel anything/What's a little leaving to a girl like me?" Yowser!  

Sound bleak? Yes, but here's the other thing: this is a seriously good album. It's filled with Chris Isaak-like reverb, amazing bass from Kevin Whitset, and loads of texturing synth, organ, keyboards, and guitar–all of which serve the songs brilliantly. Miller's voice is husky when it needs to be, vulnerable if called for, and as sharp as a knife when she needs to cut someone down to size. Miller's neither an innocent nor a shrinking violet; hers are songs for femmes fatale and revenge seekers, but also ones that demand acceptance of the music and of Ms. Miller on her terms. Call it ice and fire, sexy and sultry. Call it one of the year's smartest records. Rob Weir  

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