Listen Up: Friday, September 29, 2004
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A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Tift Merritt

Tambourine (Lost Highway Records)

By Jimmy Fowler

Tift Merritt

Tambourine

(Lost Highway Records)

Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Time all have their strengths as publications, but discovering fresh musical talent —especially of the alt-country/Southern soul stripe — isn’t one of them. They seem better suited to profiling artists who’ve long toiled outside the mainstream and deserve wider recognition. North Carolina’s Tift Merritt does not belong in that category, so it might constitute something of a red flag that her 2002 debut Bramble Rose received orgasmic press clips not only from the above glossy trio but that lodestar of A&R scouting, the Associated Press. Featuring straight-ahead honkytonk-lite arrangements and Merritt’s wry, girlish soprano, the record wasn’t earth-shattering, but since it came from an attractive twentysomething blonde, look out.

Merritt’s follow-up, Tambourine, in turn seems like an assertion of talent over looks; the record has a (relatively) rockin’, aggressive sound, which means that producer George Drakoulias has laid down some roadhouse piano here, a few electric guitar squalls there, but mostly remained on a mid-tempo path. The tunes — all but one of them written by Merritt — congeal into a single country-rock sludge as a result. The three best songs — odes to the right guy (“Good-Hearted Man”) and the benefits of myopia in life (“Ain’t Lookin’ Closely”) and love (“Still Pretending”) — support the Dusty Springfield comparisons that have fluttered around Merritt lately. But then Drakoulias oversells the neo-Dusty hype with soul strutters like “Your Love Took a U Turn” and “I Am Your Tambourine” (“Shake me with your love!”), two terrible compositions with blocky, monochromatic horn charts. It doesn’t help that the influence of Merritt’s self-proclaimed hero, the extraordinary Maria McKee, can be clearly heard through the Muscle Shoals swarm of back-up vocals. McKee mastered the country angel-grunge thing two decades ago and then soared beyond it, leaving this listener to pine for a new Maria McKee album with Tift Merritt on backing vocals. In fairness, Merritt has earned raves for her live shows. But Tambourine provides no solid opportunities to gauge her talent.


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