Merritt and Dinnerstein may or may not be cool, but the music is purposely cold.
There was a time during the sixties when progressive rockers mixed all sorts of different musical styles together. Some of the earliest of these experiments connected classical music to rock and roll to create art rock, such as the Moody Blues's Days of Future Passed. Several of the best works combined a female voice with classical themes and instrumentation, such as Judy Collins's Wildflowers and In My Life. By the '70s, no one though twice about adding a French Horn solo or a violin string section to a song or having a rock performer use a classical trope into his or her compositions.
So the combination of classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein and Americana artist Tift Merritt collaborating on a bunch of classical, country, folk, jazz, and rock songs does not seem radically new as much as fundamentally old. After all, the sixties were five decades ago. That doesn’t make this a bad record. Originality can be overrated. It just makes it a curiosity, like when the Flaming Lips covered Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. No one expected Wayne Coyne's band to be better than the Brits; but they did presume the results would be cooler.
Merritt and Dinnerstein may or may not be cool, but the music is purposely cold. The two musicians sing and play as if they were performing at a concert hall. For the most part, the music is quiet, which seems appropriate on Schubert's "Night and Dreams" and Henry Purcell's "Dido's Lament" but odd on Merritt's self-penned compositions like "Feel of the World". Merritt keeps her voice in check while Dinnerstein provides a formal backdrop to the love song. The passionate lyrics are tamed by the presentation, even as the music builds to a somber crescendo. Nevertheless, there is something beautiful happening. The song may take a backseat to the musical constraints, but that is kind of the point. Repression leads to a more beneficent, slower gratification.
The two try and do the same on the famous Billie Holiday tune, "Don't Explain", but this experiment is less successful. Holiday already used restraint to show deep feelings, and classicizing the effort detracts from the overwhelming emotionalism of the song. Both Merritt and Dinnerstein seem to be out of their elements and do not bring anything fresh to the standard.
However, on the more folk oriented tracks such as "I Will Give My Love an Apple" the formalizing process gives dignity to more vernacular expressions. The same is true of Merritt's take on the traditional "Wayfaring Stranger". The slowly enunciated lyrics make the words seem more heartfelt. On the opposite side, Dinnerstein's version of Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" (commissioned by Dinnerstein and written by Daniel Felsenfeld) called "The Cohen Variations" reveals the pianist's ability to point out the complexity of the seemingly simple tune by playing over and around the notes to showcase the melody's venturesome splendor. There are flowers to be found among the refuse of the music that at first seems more conversational than poetic.
As such, Night is a mixed bag. The four Tift Merritt originals sound like Mary Chapin Carpenter-lite because of the laid back presentations and the Brad Mehldau cut written for this collaboration ("I Weep at Night") suffers from the same problem. The closest the two come to letting go is on the closing track, Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now". It's a little too late and really doesn't swing as much as it should. Their version of Patty Griffin's "Night" distills the atmospherics of the whole disc into something more profound. However, it can be difficult to listen to because it is so dark. What else would one expect from a song and record called Night?