Fine picking, fine listening and great songs.
John R. Miller sounds much older than his years on ‘Heat Comes Down’, his second album for Rounder Records. He comes across as the seasoned front porch idler who observes life passing by, contemplating its worthiness and finally offering his own sage thoughts on the various vagaries that have crossed his path. That he does so in such an excellent manner as on this disc is worthy of celebration. ‘Heat Comes Down’ is, hands down, one of the best American country folk albums this reviewer has heard this year.
For the most part Miller delivers his dusty tales (and his own anxieties) in a mellow and extremely attractive low key manner, his backing band, with fiddle and pedal steel well to the fore, sounding as if they were playing on the self same porch he resides on. Although he’s based in Nashville these days, Miller is originally from West Virginia which is set firmly within the Appalachians and there’s no doubt he inhaled the area’s musical traditions – his earlier years were spent with the fine stringband The Foxhunt. John Prine was another inspiration and Miller combines the traditional and the likes of Prine’s writings quite perfectly here. It’s worth noting also that, at times, Miller recalls the loose limbed recordings of Michael Hurley on albums such as ‘Long Journey’ and ‘Snockgrass’.
The opening song, ‘Nobody Has To Know Your Mind’ is indeed a Prine like number given a surrealistic twist by Miller as he sings of rocket ships and frogs doing their thing. It’s quite a joyous start but it’s then upstaged by the excellent and sinewy ‘Insomnia Blues’ which slopes along in a manner reminiscent of Ramsey Midwood, a feat repeated on ‘Crumbling Pie’. Meanwhile ‘Harpers Ferry Moon’ is like hearing Will Oldham backed by a slouchy Crazy horse while ‘Dollar Store Tents’ is a frontier song delivered in a fine sepia stained fashion.
Miller is firmly situated in his old time persona on the winsome jaunt of ‘Summer Lane’ and on ‘Press On’ he’s the man in charge on a trucking song which eschews the usual levels of testosterone involved with such songs. He does let loose on the amphetamined Dylan like ‘Conspiracies, Cults & UFOs’ which gives the album a fine jolt but he can also dial it back as on the finest song here, the possibly biographical ‘Basements’ which tells the tale of a young band trying to scrabble a way forward. If it is indeed the beginning of Miller’s climb, culminating in this album, then his youthful self should have a huge grin on his face as ‘Heat Comes Down’ is destined to be a favourite listen for this reviewer at least.