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Several months ago, when the legendary Chicago indie-rock club Lounge Ax closed, I asked roots-scene fixture Chris Mills to share his favorite memories of the place. He proudly recalled getting his face bloodied by a drunken, stage-diving Waco Brother, then wistfully recounted the Built to Spill show where two different women dumped him. That's Mills--equally quick to wallow in self-pity or revel in the cathartic power of rock 'n' roll. And in a nutshell, that's his new album too. The ten songs on Kiss It Goodbye stack heartbreak like cordwood, then burn it all away in a blaze of strumming and roaring.
From its title on down, Mills's 1998 debut full-length, Every Night Fight For Your Life (Sugar Free), announced the arrival of a raw talent equally adept at slurred country-folk ballads and roughneck stomp (he played in a speed-metal band before the influence of southern Illinois homeboys Uncle Tupelo began to take). The singer's engagingly literate lyrics, meanwhile, revealed characters torn between cockiness and remorse. When Mills sang, "We're two crawlers in the same patch of dirt," on the love song "Fire for You," he sounded both reassured and doomed.
Now Mills leaps into his bracing new Kiss It Goodbye (Sugar Free) with both fists clenched: As feedback squeals and drums clatter, he seems to brush aside fears of sophomore slumping with the declarative howl "It's gonna be a brand new day!" And yet he has never sounded more restless or desperate. As if to bury the Sting song, "Brand New Day" closes with a self-disgusted couplet worthy of Westerberg: "Friends come around/Pretend that you're glad to see them/You hate your heroes most because you could never be them."
Mills has earned a rep as a wordsmith on the order of alt-country song savant Richard Buckner, and he sits atop the stack of rising roots writers alongside fellow Chicago transplant Neko Case. But to define his talent by such narrow parameters is a disservice, not to mention inaccurate: Like Twin Cities hero Mason Jennings, Mills uses the country-folk idiom as a base but forays far afield: "All You Ever Do" is Velvety garage punk; "Signal/Noise" is dense, Spectorish pop. These songs, and even the steel-guitar-driven "Watch Chain," show how much he has sharpened his hooks--which are vital, given the dreary subject matter (domestic violence, suicide, lots of drinking to forget). Mills's snotty humor helps too. Try not to chuckle at his rendition of Herman Jolly's "Crooked Vein," a well-chosen cover that sneers at self-destruction: "My eyes are blurry/If I had friends, they'd all be worried."
The best of Kiss It Goodbye comes when Mills turns his unblinking gaze to the ambiguities of romance, a subject he addresses with more passion and nuance than anyone east of Elliott Smith. In these songs, crushes are all-consuming: "You've got bad teeth in your filthy mouth/I want to touch your face /I'm gonna suck them all out," he vows in "Lips Are Like Poison." Commitment comes a bit harder: "I've been stealing your breath/And you've been watching me fade," he confides in "Tooth and Nail."
Never mind the singer's wised-up smirk: By album's end, he's still too hopeful (or hopelessly lovestruck) to give in to cynicism. On the epic closer "Signal/Noise," the strings, horns, and Kelly Hogan's harmonies swell into plush retro-radio soul, and Mills simply sings along: "Tonight there are people falling in love/All over the world/For just one night/Why can't we be them?/Don't you want to be like them?"