Scott Miller & the Commonwealth's Citation honors old-fashioned notions of duty, trust, and history and does so in a way that doesn't neglect the equally old-fashioned idea of rock-and-roll. Yet there's nothing antiquated about Miller's historical consciousness; even when he celebrates cars that get eight miles a gallon or portrays Sam Houston "reading Homer to some Cherokee maidens," he sounds as honestly confused about his place in the world as any other person trying to scrape by in George W. Bush's America.
Which isn't to say that Citation is an overtly political record or that there aren't times when Miller's embrace of basic rock-and-roll comes across as a bit pro forma. The aforementioned "8 Miles a Gallon" is a one-chord stomp that illustrates Miller's musical conception, which can be thin. But producer Jim Dickinson (who recorded the album at Midtown's Young Avenue Sound) brings an ear for the telling detail, as on "Freedom's a Stranger," where a brief clattering of drumsticks and an electric-guitar flourish punctuate Miller's narrative. And on the brilliant "Only Everything," a dark, simple guitar line anchors the performance. Miller sings the first verse with pounding drums and a sustained organ note as sole accompaniment. This is both a statement of desperation ("Oh, Virginia, why you wanna do the things/That drive me crazy?") and a relationship-gone-bad song.
Dickinson is an ideal collaborator for these tales of individualism bumping up against history; as he writes in the liner notes, "The past gives us faith that we can expect a future." And if Miller may be confused by the present, he certainly knows how to make something of the past. Citation's centerpiece is "Say Ho," the greatest song ever written about Sam Houston. "He met a man named Andy Jack/Who put him on the Nashville map/But even then that town could piss you off," Miller sings.
Houston covered a lot of ground -- he served as governor of Tennessee and president of the Republic of Texas -- and Miller does too, bringing the timeless virtues of concision and empathy to this tale of a man who roared through the wilderness without losing his honor. -- Edd Hurt