- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Tift Merritt

Another Country


Tift Merritt is cursed with a nearly perfect voice, bright and clear and lacking in the kind of distinctive timbre that inspires devotion and fuels argument. It coos but rarely crackles; it soothes but doesn’t bear convincing witness to soul-crushing pain or wanton lust or impossible yearning.

To her credit, perhaps, she doesn’t really try. The 11 songs on “Another Country” give voice to a much narrower range of feeling — a modest sense of dislocation, a cautious glimmer of romantic satisfaction, an acceptance of one’s place in the world. The song “Tender Branch” is itself an ode to a moderation. Miss Merritt sings, “I was young and I thought it brave/ Fighting to find the mystery’s face/You got to give it a gentler chase/Cause oh the tender branch is gonna fall.” Here, as elsewhere, the lyrics are spare and well-crafted, but absent are sharpness, specificity and a compelling voice behind them.

As a melodist and songwriter, however, Miss Merritt is top-notch. She excels both at the quick, catchy hook and the slow, steady burn. The song “Morning Is My Destination” is a perfect example of this. A moaning blues guitar plays over a simple, steady drumbeat and is joined by a steady, low piano and an iridescent, soaring organ part. The mix imparts a weirdly unsteady desire combined with a shimmering note of hope that would abide with or without the lyrics.

The warm strum of an acoustic guitar that opens “Hopes Too High” is as melancholy as a gentle autumn rain and speaks to the song’s theme of rootlessness more than the lyrics, “No place to run for a girl like me/ Whole lot of used to’s and supposed to be’s.”

This is the second of Miss Merritt’s albums to be produced by George Drakoulias, known for his work with the alt-country band the Jayhawks. Their previous collaboration, “Tambourine,” paired the singer with a much bigger sound, using Stax-style horns, heavy drums and pounding piano riffs — playing like a bit of a museum piece, by comparison, to “Another Country.”

Wisely, I think, Miss Merritt steers away from this rollicking, blowsy sound in favor of music that feels more intimate and personal. Indeed, the album’s title references the time Miss Merritt spent ensconced in a Paris apartment writing these songs. Again, it’s not so much the lyrics that make the album feel personal. It’s the way the songs tend to key off of a single instrument, whether a guitar or piano, before taking wing.

Miss Merritt is clearly a gifted artist, but perhaps she suffers from the litany of critical comparisons — Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, Dusty Springfield, Linda Ronstadt — in which she is bound to disappoint. A more apt comparison might be to Carole King, a great talent whose limitations as a singer were all the more evident because of her great skill as a songwriter.

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