If your local Americana/Triple A-formatted radio station
isn’t all over Tift Merritt’s “Mixtape,” from her new album See You On the Moon, you might want to
suggest the program director quickly get his or her head examined.
This song is, to put it succinctly, an instant classic. With
its seductively irresistible Memphis-soul guitar riff, minor-key yet insistent,
strings and horns sparingly added for color, it’s both contemporary and retro.
And the lyrics – equating the care and passion that goes into creating
old-school homemade cassette tapes with love, itself – is something any music
fan of a certain age can bittersweetly recall. It’s such a perfect song, and
such a perfect subject for a song, you just want to hit replay a couple dozen
But moving on to the other 11 songs on this album, produced
by Tucker Martine (the Decemberists, Spoon), See You On the Moon has plenty of rewards, even if they don’t have
that gritty R&B undercurrent. (“Six More Days of Rain,” however, builds
from a jangly Byrdsian-guitar opening to a soaring chorus.)
Merritt has that knack for writing concretely detailed songs
that have a literary quality but also seem personal – wrenched from experience,
even when they’re not. In that regard, she’s in the tradition of Rosanne Cash
and Shawn Colvin, and artists like that are pretty rare.
Because Merritt is from North Carolina and injects a bit of
Tarheel rustic twang into the pristine clarity of her voice, she’s been
considered over the course of three studio and two concert albums part of the
al-country movement. Not that there’s anything wrong with alt-country, but that
image could mark Merritt as being about her sound rather than her songs.
If that straightjackets the powerful original work on this
album, it does her a disservice. “Papercut” is a sharply perceptive
parallel-construction piece that’s both clever (“You’re just a papercut”) and
has a tough kick to it. And it’s impressive the way she backs into, and thus
builds, the emotional impact of the title song with its startling, arresting
opening line: “Three-legged dog/Remember when you brought it home.”
Merritt’s voice has that sorrow-edged suppleness and ease of
enunciation that is reminiscent of Emmylou Harris, especially on the title
ballad. She expresses tenderness and intelligence equally and simultaneously.
And her album has a naturalistic sound – folk-rock that, whether or not
amplified or augmented by a drumbeat and occasional horns and strings, seems
built up from acoustic instruments.
Her band provides lots of guitar including pedal steel,
violin and viola, harmony singing and keyboards (which go well with all music).
Jim James/Yim Yames of My Morning Jacket, by the way, offers harmonies on this
album’s “Feel of the World.” And on See
You On the Moon, she has highlighted the immediacy of her sound by
recording with Martine straight to two-inch analog tape.
Someone like Merritt does need to be careful about recording
covers. The two here, Emitt Rhodes’ old “Live Till You Die” and the Loggins
& Messina/Anne Murray chestnut “Danny’s Song” are pretty, but lack the
lyrical resonance of her own work. But that’s as much a reflection of how good her
own work is as it is of those other songs.
So tune in your local appropriate radio station now and wait
to hear “Mixtape.” It should play soon – or there’s something very wrong with
whoever is in charge.
Standout Tracks: “Mixtape,” “Feel of the World” STEVEN