Buddy & Julie Miller

Buddy & Julie Miller (HighTone)

When an album opens with a cover of Richard Thompson's dark and brooding "Keep Your Distance," you know you'd better fasten your seatbelt: It's going to be a bumpy ride. On their first official album as a couple, Buddy and Julie Miller take us down love's lost highway, where trouble's always waiting around the bend.

Best known as Emmylou Harris's guitarist and singing partner, Buddy Miller has released three critically acclaimed albums, all of them masterpieces of country soul. (Think Hank Williams meets Otis Redding.) His wife, Julie, is a top-notch songwriter whose girlish voice is something of an acquired taste; together they sound like George and Tammy gone alt-country. It's no wonder that their songs have been recorded by some of Nashville's biggest names, including Garth Brooks, Suzy Bogguss, the Dixie Chicks and Lee Ann Womack.

"Forever Has Come to an End," with its old-fashioned country harmonies, evokes the ancient songs of the Carter Family. (Emmylou, profusely thanked in the liner notes, helps out on this one.) It's a sad song about a love gone wrong: "Now the sun need no longer to shine dear/And the world no longer to spin/For your love it has run out of time dear/And forever has come to an end."

There's nothing country at all about "You Make My Heart Beat Too Fast," which wouldn't be out of place on a Pretenders album. "You make my heart beat too fast," Julie wails over Buddy's distorted electric guitar and Brady Blade's driving drumbeat. "You make me want this to last/You make me spend all my money/Oh, I think I love you, honey." But love turns sour again on the bluesy "Dirty Water." ("Well I don't need you hangin' round my door/Trying to drag me back down to the shore/And I ain't gonna drink your dirty water no more.")

The Millers offer two other well-chosen cover songs: "Rock Salt and Nails," a tale of bitter love by Utah Phillips, and Bob Dylan's lightweight but catchy "Wallflower," which features Larry Campbell, of Dylan's band, on fiddle, and Garry Tallent, from the E Street Band, on bass.

"Rachel," Julie's ode to Rachel Scott, who died in the shooting at Columbine High School, reaffirms the girl's apparent martyrdom, painting her as a "little lamb" who now dances "in the arms of God forevermore." No doubt the song's sentiment is heartfelt -- Julie is a born-again Christian who often writes about spiritual longing -- but "Rachel" is the album's only misstep, a bit of saccharine amid the bile.

In contrast, the closing song, "Holding Up the Sky," is a hopeful pledge of love that hits just the right note. Accompanied by an acoustic guitar and mandolin, their voices merged into one, the Millers sing, "Our love will hold up the sky/When the rain comes down too hard/It's a cord that will not untie/It's a promise the angels guard." The message is clear: Despite all the pain and sorrow around us, true love prevails.

 
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