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Tift Merritt - Tambourine

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Artist: Tift Merritt

Album: Tambourine

Label: Lost Highway

Review date: Aug. 29, 2004

The mainstream press embraced Tift Merritt’s 2002 debut almost unequivocally, likening the young North Carolinian singer-songwriter to established genre heroes like Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams. Not faint praise, but common-enough as a style of critical shorthand – useful in distinguishing a new singer as, well, a woman with a twangy voice (Harris and Williams themselves have little more in common than that). In Merritt’s case, though, the comparisons were unusually perceptive. Bramble Rose tracks like “Trouble Over Me” and “Suppose To Make You Happy” really were as wispy and silky-sad as late-’70s era Emmylou, and the biggest standouts, “Virginia, No One Can Warn You” and “I Know Him Too,” mixed their sugar with a dash of drawling grit, noticeably akin to Lucinda classics like “Crescent City” and “Metal Firecracker.”

Despite the critical garlands, however, Bramble Rose was something of a commercial flop (Merritt has been a vocal critic of FCC-approved media consolidation, which she blames for keeping her music off of commercial radio). It’s natural to assume that there’s some pressure this time out to find wider commercial appeal, but Tambourine doesn’t feel constrained by that – the record feels like an earnest exploration of a more diverse set of styles, not a defensive retreat into focus group-tested mush. Unfortunately, the end results can’t hold a candle to the subtle and sensuous beauty of Bramble Rose. In expanding her breadth, Merritt relinquishes too much of the depth that made her debut so distinguished.

One problem, apparent from the outset, is that Merritt’s expressive capacity is held in check for much of Tambourine by a tinny production sound that blunts the rich, velvety tone of her voice. In instrumental terms, the leadoff “Stray Paper” and later songs like “Ain’t Looking Closely” are formulaic jangle rock, and without Merritt’s vocal nuances they don’t manage to rise above that. Bramble Rose erred on just a few tracks that wandered a half-step too far into bland, Sheryl Crow-sounding mediocrity – where production cheese overwhelmed the restrained beauty of Merritt’s delivery. The driving tempos, punchy melodies, and tinny pop production of Tambourine hamstring Merritt in a similar way. She barrels through fist-pumping rockers like “Wait It Out” and “I Am Your Tambourine” with plenty of pizzazz, but her voice is better suited to the wistful, conflicted style of her debut. Similar moments are sprinkled across Tambourine – “Write My Ticket” hinges on the bittersweet inflections that Merritt delivers so skillfully, and “Laid A Highway” has a graceful narrative style reminiscent of Gillian Welch – but these are few and far between.

The big news on Tambourine is a handful of songs that utilize heavy brass, soulful syncopation, and energetic background singers to approximate Muscle Shoals classics like Dusty In Memphis and I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You). It’s hard to fault Merritt for such a bold directional shift – strong singers like Shelby Lynne have taken similar chances and managed to cover all of their adopted bases beautifully. Merritt has the pipes to fill the Dusty and Aretha molds, but seems overwhelmed by her first try at it. The best of the Muscle Shoals-style tracks – “Good Hearted Man” in particular – almost get it right. A tense, rippling emotional balance is located in the brass backing, cooing background singers, and Merritt’s relaxed delivery. But “Your Love Made A U Turn” is dreadful – the snappy horn parts and Supremes-clones overwhelm her, and she comes off like a kid playing dress-up. It’s difficult but possible to sound seductively intimate above a chorus of cascading brass – Dusty In Memphis and I Never Loved A Man wouldn’t be stone-cold classics if it weren’t. But Merritt doesn’t locate the level of intimacy she achieves on Bramble Rose. The estranging production style and beefed-up backing leave Merritt to plow her way through, rather than tenderly occupy, these songs.

By Nathan Hogan

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