Amy Miles – Dirty Stay-Out

Amy Miles
Dirty Stay-Out

It admittedly takes a lot this week to get myself to sit down patiently and listen to a new album, what with new releases from Blur and Radiohead, not to mention the fact that I just picked up Kathleen Edwards’s debut, Failer. Trust me: it’s not their fault, but any new artist’s offering would pale by comparison to that album.

So with the burden of this bias acknowledged and confessed to, I played Amy Miles’s Dirty Stay-Out with fingers tightly crossed. Fortunately for everyone involved, it was good enough to distract me for a while from the remote control disc-changer buttons. It’s a really solid pop-rock record, with a musical inventiveness rare in self-produced, low-budget debuts of this sort. Miles never gets too deep into one groove for any length of time, so the songs stand out and make you notice each one rather than blending into one four-chord drone. The quieter ballads, like “My Doom Again,” keep an edge to them, never slumping into easy sappiness. The noisier up-tempo rock numbers are what has led a number of critics to draw comparisons to Liz Phair, and it’s true that certain songs point squarely at Exile in Guyville and its surrounding demos and B-sides as a big influence. “Break it on the Kitchen Floor” maintains a drone of strumming on the guitar’s lower strings that reminds me especially of Phair’s “Girls! Girls! Girls!” With that said, nowhere on the album can Miles be said to be overly derivitave, of Phair or of anyone else.

Miles is an Arkansas native transplanted to New York, but her southern roots are not especially in evidence here anywhere except maybe on “End of the Dock,” which opens with a vocal intro that reminds me a little of Victoria Williams, and in the sweet slide guitar that snakes through the closing track, “Beaver Fork Lake.” There’s even a little nod toward electronica here, with a rather weak-sounding drum machine supporting “Steven.” I suppose it’s not too surprising, given this range, that Miles has toured and performed on festival bills with artists as diverse as They Might Be Giants, Ludacris, and the Wilco spin-off Minus Five. What’s impressive is not that she goes for different sounds, but that she works them into a remarkably cohesive, confident album. Miles is an artist who, like Phair, knows exactly what she’s doing and what risks or departures she’s taking along the way.

Not only that, but only the opening two tracks, “Kill to Know” and “Tail Between,” actually sound like demos, which is a pretty impressive feat for an album recorded in several sessions of begged, borrowed, and stolen studio time.

I’m not sure if the music world is ready yet to give another wave of inventive, self-propelled solo artists the support that a few years ago put Phair, Matthew Sweet, and Beck on the radio, but with the force of a wave of new artists like Kathleen Edwards (okay, I just switched the CD), Pete Yorn, and Ben Kweller, not to mention Norah Jones, maybe the music industry won’t have a choice. And maybe we’ll get to hear a lot more of Amy Miles if it happens.