With the ebullience of 'Tambourine' comes the loss of the tenderness of 'Bramble Rose'...
Sue Keogh 2004
Merritt's 2002 debut release Bramble Rose was a treat; finely spun vocals soaring over compelling tales of love, loss and resilience. Those expecting the same measured delicacy in the follow-up record should be prepared to be smacked in the face by a wall of horns, Muscle Shoals grooves and some very enthusiastic backing singers.
In the run-up to recording Tambourine, Merritt listened to a lot of Aretha and Van Morrison and decided that her new record should be a kind of rock-soul thrown down. With producer George Drakoulis on board who was responsible for the roots-rock sound that worked so well on Maria McKee's Gotta Sin To Get Saved album, and behind hugely successful releases by The Black Crowes, Primal Scream, Tom Petty and The Jayhawks her wish was granted.
As a result Tambourine has a foot in a variety of camps. Opener "Stray Paper" offers the slightly stretched vocal and pop melody of any Sheryl Crow hit, "Laid A Highway" has a great country bassline, and there's plenty of booty-shaking gospel and R&B to be found in "Shadow In the Way", "Late Night Pilgrim", "Good Hearted Man" and the suggestive "I Am Your Tambourine".
Fellow North Carolinian Ryan Adams first gave Merritt a leg up, getting her the gig with the Lost Highway label where she sits very comfortably alongside the likes of Adams, Lucinda Williams and Kim Richey. Now it's time to show she can live up to her early promise. But whilst a powerful and assured second release, unfortunately with the ebullience of Tambourine comes the loss of the tenderness of Bramble Rose which made Merritt sound so refreshingly distinctive in the first place.
Every artist should have room to mature and forge their own sound. But, frustratingly, artists as accomplished as Allison Moorer and Shelby Lynne have been treading a similar genre-defying path for many years, only to endure a host of label changes and a lack of radio play. It'll be interesting to see if Merritt can succeed where they have foundered.