For as much as I want to add John R. Miller’s name to the list of rising Appalachian singer/songwriters to have real breakout years in 2021 in the same vein as, say, Cole Chaney, that doesn’t quite feel like the right introduction. On the contrary, Miller’s been active for the better part of a decade, and for as much as those nonsensical conversations inevitably pop up about finding the next Sturgill Simpson or Tyler Childers, Miller is actually someone who can say he’s influenced the latter artist (and vice versa).
And while I can’t say the rough-around-the-edges presentation was always for me on those earlier releases, I do think Miller was (and still is) someone to keep an eye on, especially when he’s only caught real groundswell support over time by signing with Rounder Records to release his latest record. Maybe not so much a rise, then, as a deserved slow-burn that’s already taken the indie country crowd by storm.
For me, though, it’s always these reviews that make me feel like I’m a half step away from that crowd at large, because while I absolutely do like Miller’s Depreciated, it’s punching a little lower than I’d like. And it’s always these reviews that get genuinely frustrating for me, because in terms of tone and texture I’d argue Miller is hitting the spot … but dig a little deeper and the project feels a bit undercooked, not helped by two tracks brought over from his older releases along with an instrumental that mixes up the greater cohesion and consistency. I absolutely see why it’s winning folks here, and I really want to love it, but I’m struggling to pinpoint what isn’t quite clicking here.
Before that, though, I want to highlight what does work, which mostly comes through in the needed changes and improvements in production and instrumentation. There’s a bone-deep organic richness to this project rife with melodic fullness that makes a lot of these songs hard to outright dislike, especially in the warmer comedic moments like “Lookin’ Over My Shoulder” and “Half Ton Van.” And when the welcome, rich fiddle drops in to support those hooks, I’m won over by a track like “Old Dance Floor” on composition and presentation alone. And if there’s a real highlight here, it’s Miller’s acoustic guitar playing, which dominates the entire record and lingers with impressive proficiency to compliment the melodies and grooves, especially in the bright, gorgeous touches on “Faustina.” On the other hand, the minor, creaking swell driving “Shenandoah Shakedown” easily provides the album highlight, especially when the percussion snakes in and that electric guitar smolders in the latter half for the album’s tensest moment.
Actually, it’s really the only outright tense moment here, and that feeds my first criticism for the project, in that I’d love to hear more mix depth and experimental flourishes like that elsewhere to better flesh out the content. Don’t get me wrong, I love the incorporation of blues-inspired licks for the tongue-in-cheek rollick of “Lookin’ Over My Shoulder” and the reverb-saturated “Fire Dancer” that emphasizes its stark, lonely atmosphere, but certain moments can feel a little uniform. Miller’s haggard, hangdog delivery doesn’t vary much, and while the acoustics do prominently shine throughout this album, it almost feels like it’s at the cost of the other elements, which is an issue with mixing. I appreciate having the ragged edges of fiddle and mandolin for melodic support, but they always hang in the low end and never really get to open up or rise above the midrange, and that doesn’t help in terms of establishing differentiation between the tracks or letting them do more.
A significant part of that also circles back to the writing, which takes a diffuse approach to its themes and ideas in establishing a lighter tone to its Appalachian sound. There are no murder ballads or coal-miner anthems; it’s more like a collection of philosophical ramblings from a road dog that’s seen the world beyond it. Indeed, there’s definitely a consistent mood across this album – longing and waiting for personal expectations to be fulfilled, mostly – but it’s not one that’s always played with the deeper stakes to really anchor the project or have it hit with greater impact beyond “Faustina” and “Shenandoah Shakedown.” It is worth highlighting how Miller can set a scene with detailed and textured language, and detailing his stormy, nearly dead relationship with his significant other in a haze while facing the calm serenity of the Shenandoah river on the latter track is quite stunning. But he can get maddeningly unspecific when it comes to exploring those actual demons, which you need at some point at the forefront to provide a deeper emotional core. “Fire Dancer” comes close in hinting at needing greater artistic fulfillment beyond just traveling aimlessly, but it’s the album’s last track and feels a bit too quaint to anchor that ending. The wonkier touches added to “Borrowed Time” feel like an odd tonal mismatch for a song that can’t decide whether it’s trying to be foreboding about time’s depreciation or tongue-in-cheek in a nihilistic sense.
Now, this album doesn’t always need to be complex to work, let me stress that. I still enjoy Miller’s sly, devil-may-care attitude in returning to his old town even despite knowing there’s an angry ex-lover waiting for him on “Lookin’ Over My Shoulder,” and for a track that just aims to cut loose on the dance floor with a beer in hand, “Old Dance Floor” does the trick just fine. It’s the same deadspan snark on the former track that drives a lot of what I like about “Half Ton Van” about, well, trying to sell a beat-down van. With that said, of the two tracks brought over, “Motors Fried” meanders in its message of running on empty that “Faustina” handles way better. And for as much as I like the idea of watching an isolated woman dance in the bars to ease her pain better than anyone else could for her on “Back and Forth,” it feels like a missed opportunity not to include himself within that role, especially when he’s telling the story from the perspective of someone looking on at her. Again, the places where this album could have dug just a little deeper for something richer are there.
And for as negative as this review may seem, I would like to stress that the two highlights in “Faustina” and “Shenandoah Shakedown” are two of the best of the year, and that Depreciated is still a good listen at its worst. But when it comes to Depreciated as a whole, I’m not as won over as I’d like to be, mostly due to a scattershot listen that’s trying to be too many things. With that said, I definitely hear the appeal in Miller’s loose ramblings, and considering this is being poised as a breakout album for him, I do hear the promise. Here’s to hoping for something more.
- Favorite tracks: “Shenandoah Shakedown,” “Faustina,” “Old Dance Floor,” “Lookin’ Over My Shoulder,” “Half Ton Van”