Chris Mills & the Distant Stars


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Chris Mills was a scrappy alt-country singer/songwriter in the 1990s, following the path of Uncle Tupelo and the bands that emerged in their wake, but in 2013 he's a very different artist, a grown man with a strong but rueful lyrical voice and a sound that has more to do with heartland rock than the nervy tone of his youth. "There was a time, not long ago/I was a rake, I was a shadow/In the darkness of the day/I wanted love like a refugee," Mills sings in "Blooms," the fourth song on 2013's Alexandria, and while he's singing in character and not about his own creative evolution, the tone of the album is heavy with regrets about the past and a desire to move on to a better future, and Mills has learned how to tell these stories with an emotional force that's thoughtful, genuine, and for the most part effective. Mills and Christer Knutsen, who co-produced the album and handles guitar and keyboards, have given Alexandria a sound that's at once grand and spare, making the most of the dynamics between the musicians as they by turns join together in a grand, pealing roar and pull back to the whisper of a single instrument. Musically, Alexandria is strongest when Mills and his band reach for the grand gesture, allowing these songs to sound as big as they want, and when he's baring his soul on "Helpless Bells," "The Sweet Hereafter," and the title cut, he delivers something truly impressive. However, Mills' insistence on going for widescreen tales of broken hearts and lives gone astray gets a bit wearying by the end of the album, and as good as Alexandria is, it needs more thematic diversity than Mills and his crew give this set of songs. This album shows Chris Mills is still an artist who deserves a bigger and more attentive audience, but it also reveals that now that he's reaching for bigger stakes in his music, he's not hitting the target with the accuracy he once claimed.

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