If you're looking for ideas for that hard-to-buy-for music fan on your holiday list, consider Chris Mills' new The Silver Line. It's an overstuffed bag of toys, a Russian nesting doll that keeps revealing new faces the more you dig, a gift that keeps on giving. "It's all part of building that familiarity with the audience and then sort of incorporating your own world into the music," offers Mills when asked about the twists that enrich his songs as well as the capacity for discovery that his work affords. "It's like those puzzle boxes or whatever that you open and there's something inside. And then you open (what's inside) and there's something inside that. I try to give people a lot for their money."
"Suicide Note" on The Silver Line, for example, is a song overflowing with ideas, musical and otherwise. It's got Van Morrison-like horn charts and harmony vocals from the wonderful Kelly Hogan. A piano drives, a banjo lurks. And the title itself turns out to be a nice piece of wordplay. Then there's "Sleeptalking," which quotes the Everly Brothers lyrically while sounding like Uncle Tupelo covering a song that the Byrds swiped from Bob Dylan. (Yes, I know that seems convoluted, but we'll talk again after you hear the song.)
The Chicago-based Mills good-naturedly describes his musical adventures to date as starting "with the speed metal band in high school and then the collegiate folk revival and then a bunch of records that nobody bought"--specifically, his rugged but promising debut EP Nobody's Favorite, followed by two full-length albums, 1998's Every Night Fight For Your Life and 2000's Kiss it Goodbye. Across those three releases, Mills' music grew progressively more eclectic, setting the stage for The Silver Line, which finds him working in layers--some strings here, even more horns there--like a roots-pop Phil Spector. There are many moments that are downright lovely, but the stories and emotions revealed in the songs are just as often harsh, with people choking on wishes and being poisoned by promises. One protagonist is coughing up blood, while another has gone Poe and started tearing up floorboards. It's as if the Coen brothers' film Blood Simple was scored by Jimmy Webb. "That's always been an aesthetic that I found particularly compelling," Mills says about the idea of marrying upbeat melodies and downer thoughts. "I find it an interesting contrast to play with. And I think it makes both sides of it a little more effective."
Something else that Mills enjoys is sharing the music of artists he admires by covering their songs. This isn't some nostalgia-driven exercise; instead, Mills chooses to spotlight the work of friends and other contemporaries. A homegrown CD that he sells only at shows features songs by the likes of the Flaming Lips, Red Red Meat, and the Fruit Bats, and on his last two albums, Mills has covered recent compositions by Herman Jolly ("Crooked Vein") and Hawksley Workman (whose "Don't Be Crushed" ends The Silver Line on a hushed but striking note), respectively. The goal is simply to expose people to great songs that they might not otherwise hear. "There's a lot of us under the radar," says Mills with a laugh. "It's pretty crowded."