When Tift Merritt's first album, Bramble Rose, came out in 2002, the critics all salivated, placing her in a genealogical line of country legends such as Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and even Patsy Cline. Merritt, whose voice is indeed a marvel, was immediately thrown into the genre's pantheon after a mere album. Bramble Rose wasn't bad, but it wasn't justification for spontaneous critical idolatry, especially when the album suffered from the now-epidemic shortcomings of alt-country: trite lyrics, predictable chord changes, and flat romanticizing. In other words, she made a Ryan Adams record, before Mr. Adams got all Morrissey on us. Indeed, Merritt provided no reason to think she'd have anything other than a respectable but nonetheless mediocre career.
Something happened between then and now. On Tambourine, Merritt not only plumbs the history of country (and means it, this time), she also dabbles deftly in soul, R&B, rock, and folk. Listening to this album is like putting your record collection in alphabetical order, only to realize you're more diverse and knowledgeable than you knew. Likewise, Merritt is all over the place on this album, but the songs cohere into a single artistic statement marked by consistent craftsmanship and passionate performance.
The opening song, "Stray Paper", is a country-rock tune that immediately puts the listener on warning. The first sound is Merritt's voice, and what a glorious, sexy things it is. Searing with sensual longing, she reflects, "I've got a postcard / With an old address / A picture of Houston / In a beat up mess". Merrit doesn't so much sing the lyrics, but dances in the sounds of certain syllables while playfully stretching others out. The result is the sound of a woman confident enough with her art to manipulate it at will. The song also reveals Merritt's lyrical technique: taking ordinary objects, people, and places, and imbuing them with mythic significance.
From here, the album travels through the American south. "Good Hearted Man" is classic Memphis soul, swelling with thick horns and backing vocals. Not only does Merritt sound like a Stax-era performer, she also commands a gospel choir through an Aretha-style chorus of "I can't find nothing / Feels so fine as lovin' / A good-hearted man / Oh, he can soothe me, free me / I'm gonna marry that / Good hearted man". Damn if that don't make you want to cruise down Beale Street in the hot August evening. "Still Pretending" is perfect for slow dancing in a dive. Marked by understated guitars and flourishes of organ, the song sways and lilts as Merritt whispers, moans, and purrs about loneliness. "Plainest Thing" sounds like a Lucinda Williams lullaby -- all weary vocals and soft, mournful strumming. Here again, Merritt finds an everyday image and paints an emotional landscape around it: "I found a mark / Where the ink bled through / Under a song / I was writing for you / Crumbled up in a drawer / Stained in blue . . ."
Indeed, the remarkable thing about this album is that while each song can easily be traced to a specific influence, not a single song sounds derivative. At times, Merritt sounds like Dusty Springfield ("Still Pretending"), other times like Bonnie Raitt ("Late Night Pilgrim"), and at other times like Sheryl Crow fulfilling her latent potential ("Stray Paper"). This album, however, is not a pretentious attempt by Merritt to prove her impeccable influences (unlike Ryan Adams' Rock 'n' Roll). Rather, this is a portrait of an artist coming into full bloom, using bits of the past to forge a creative future.
Of course, a large part of the album's artistic success is Merritt's band, comprised of veterans and virtuosos. On loan are Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench from Tom Petty's Heartbreakers, Jayhawk's frontman Gary Louris, and steel guitar master Robert Randolph. Also in tow is producer George Drakoulias, whose past clientele includes such rock legends as Tom Petty, the Black Crowes, and the Jayhawks. Still, while it may be tempting to think that any singer with such a stellar supportive cast would produce a great album, the main factor is Merritt. Her voice dictates and shapes the music, providing symbolic significance to the band's musical context.
Merritt has clearly avoided the sophomore slump by making an impressive artistic leap (think Pablo Honey to The Bends or AMi to Being There). The obvious question now is "Where does she go from here?" The answer, undoubtedly, is "Who cares?" Albums this solid are rare in today's music industry, and we should be fortunate to have an LP that makes the forward button obsolete. For now, Merritt has expanded her options, and we have the soundtrack to that next glorious heartbreak. It's the simple things, baby. It's the simple things . . .