Alt-country songbird flies solo on an excellent live album.
Tift Merritt’s had a rough go of it the past few years. Despite releasing critically acclaimed country-soul masterpiece Tambourine in 2004, she was unceremoniously dropped by label Lost Highway shortly thereafter. So she did what anyone would have done: jet off to France and write. The result was the introspective Another Country released in the winter of 2008.
Now, anyone who’s seen Merritt in concert isn’t likely to forget it anytime soon. A dynamic and engaging performer, Merritt sings and plays with a fervor that belies her downright tiny stature. In 2005, she attempted to transfer the energy of her live shows to compact disc with the limited edition album Home Is Loud. The result was only moderately successful. Just a few short years later, Merritt again tackles a live album project, but where she was backed with a full band on Home Is Loud, on new release Buckingham Solo it’s all Merritt, all the time, with only a piano and guitar to accompany her. In this case, less is certainly more. It may lack the frenetic energy of the performances in which she’s supported by her band, but Buckingham is a softer record perfect for a lazy Sunday morning after the raucous Saturday night soundtrack of Tambourine.
Obviously, the bulk of Buckingham Solo’s tracks come from most recent studio album Another Country. However, the Grammy-nominated Tambourine (it lost, of course, to Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose) gets a fair amount of attention as well -- four of the album’s dozen tracks, to be exact. And since Tambourine was such a lush record thanks to the production of George Drakoulias, it’s a real treat to hear these songs performed in such a minimalist fashion. Of special note is arguably Merritt’s best known song: "Good Hearted Man" is stripped of its horns, leaving only the piano to accompany Merritt’s airy vocal.
Debut album Bramble Rose is represented by only one track -- but it’s the 2002 record's best song. "Trouble Over Me" is a little slower than the studio version, but is still a beautiful, aching request: "Button my coat up / Stumble with your words some / Let me think that you might go to a little trouble over me". Who’d be able to refuse?
As with any live album, there’s the obligatory cover. In this case, it’s a simple and lovely version of George Harrison’s "I Live for You", which Merritt proclaims as "[her] favorite song in the world". Here it sounds almost like a Tift Merritt original, a song that could have fit in perfectly on Another Country.
Aside from the above comment regarding "I Live for You", Buckingham Solo features little artist banter, but what is included is choice: Merritt’s explanation for why the show got a late start (she was "kidnapped" by a taxi driver who had no clue as to the venue’s location) and subsequent apology to the crowd is nothing if not downright charming.
A new song, "Do Something Good", closes out the album. It’s a bit of a departure from Merritt’s typical work, which tends to be more personal and doesn’t generally address larger, political issues such as "there are no countries / There are no sides / I don’t know why / We draw these lines". However, Merritt covers this topic with the skill and grace that’s come to epitomize her brand of songwriting.
Yes, those who have seen Tift Merritt perform live will likely treasure the memory for quite some time. For those unfortunate ones who have not yet gone to a Merritt show, Buckingham Solo is an extremely well-made substitute.