CD Review of Tambourine by Tift Merritt

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starstarstarstarno star Label: Lost Highway
Released: 2004
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The little known Lost Highway Records is, to borrow from ESPN’s Dan Patrick, en fuego! Yes, it seems everything they touch these days turns to gold. Legends like Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Elvis Costello need far less in the way of exposure, but Lucinda Williams, Ryan Adams and now Tift Merritt have all benefited from this label’s recent Midas touch.

Merritt follows up 2002’s under-appreciated Bramble Rose with, quite possibly, her career score, Tambourine. Surely it doesn’t hurt that she’s signed on the exceptional George Drakoulias to produce. He put the Black Crowes on the map some 14 years ago with their milestone Shake Your Money Maker, and has since added some of the best Jayhawks records to his résumé as well. If production isn’t everything, Merritt totes along Heartbreaker Mike Campbell, Jayhawk Gary Louris, and fellow genre sister Maria McKee here for musical supplement. The result is breathtaking.

Capable beyond her years, Merritt displays raucous signs of greatness on the pedal-down romp “Wait It Out,” which is signature Drakoulias, full of multi-instrumental fever and over-the-top percussion. The rollicking title track is memorable in the same way, chock full of barroom piano and Campbell’s wailing guitar. Merritt bends but doesn’t break on a soulful “Good Hearted Man,” one beautiful debt that owes equal payola to Aretha Franklin and Emmy Lou Harris. Try as she might to turn this record into rock n’ roll, Merritt seems cemented in soul and even gospel. “Still Pretending” is a burning ode to the ex-boyfriend that confesses “I guess I’m supposed to lock you out, I guess I’m supposed to play it tough.” Background choruses abound throughout this supreme offering, more often than not at the hands of Louris and McKee, a harmonizing tandem sent straight from heaven. The gorgeous “Laid a Highway” would be right at home on a Jayhawks record, but credit Merritt with lyrical prowess, a piercing vocal delivery, and the know-how to enlist such formidable friends.

The female alt-country rank has been a busy post lately. With the likes of Kasey Chambers, Lucinda Williams, Shelby Lynne and the resurgence of Loretta Lynn earlier this year, Tift Merritt has her share of competition. But with a record like Tambourine, young Merritt seems poised to take the torch and run with it. Speaking of torches, did I mention this gal is hotter than Mount St. Helens? Don’t let that get in the way of your interest in this year’s surprise hit.

~Red Rocker