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Tift Merritt rocks the soul with a "Tambourine"

By Brian Baker, September 2004

W hat's a girl to do when the reviews for her debut album are as glowing as an ocean sunrise and her very first release winds up in nearly everybody's year end top 10 list? Some girls would panic at the prospect of following up an album with that kind of initial response simply because of the almost unbearable anticipation for the next one.

By virtue of her amazingly textured first album, the country/blues/folk tinged "Bramble Rose," and her sophomore release, the soulfully electric "Tambourine," Tift Merritt is clearly not the kind of artist to be easily rattled by a little good press. Or a lot, for that matter.

"I'm sure that it does have an influence on me, but I try to keep whatever's driving the train to be something that comes from far within and not something that has to do with extenuating circumstances," says Merritt of the effect of Bramble Rose's ecstatic reaction on the creation of "Tambourine."

"I think the main influence that 'Bramble Rose' had on this record was that we were able to tour a lot and be out on the road every night playing, so I really wanted to have a record that had that sense of joy and abandon that performing a really great live show can give you. I wanted to take that feeling to the next level."

If Merritt had merely wanted to replicate the gentle alt.-country/folk singer/songwriter vibe from "Bramble Rose" on her follow up, she would have found very little objection among her numerous and increasingly rabid fans for that particular plan.

But Merritt was uninterested in exploring the same terrain she had just presented on "Bramble Rose," and she was completely energized by her roadwork for the album.

With barely a moment's downtime after the conclusion of the "Bramble Rose" tour, Merritt set to work on the material and sonic ideas that would ultimately find her blending her already potent folk and country roots with an even more potent dash of soul and rock.

Although she recognizes the significant differences between her two albums, Merritt insists her muse and her influences have remained consistent through both works.

"I feel like I was more of a grown-up when I turned to that internal place, and maybe I had a little more courage or experience or things to say that were new," she says.

"It's so hard to talk about these mysterious things. Certainly there were influences that were stronger this time...you know, use more of the red crayon than the blue crayon. I was listening to a lot of Carole King and Dusty Springfield and Delaney and Bonnie, and I wanted to write really great songs and have that sort of throw down feel that Delaney and Bonnie and all their friends have. When you talk in terms of that internal place where you turn to write, I really wanted to handle whatever was going on inside me in such a way that was honest in a way that was not quiet and introspective but was honest in a way that was joyful and open and energetic. And I think that's the difference. I wanted to be soulful in a really loud way, not in a quiet way."

"Tambourine" is most assuredly a work that shows Merritt's extraordinary talent to full effect, from the roots rock thump of "Wait It Out" to the heartland jangle of "Stray Paper" to the searing Stax soul passion of "Good Hearted Man" and the revival-spirited "I Am Your Tambourine" to the bluesy lope of "Still Pretending."On "Your Love Made a U-Turn," Merritt sounds like a joyous cross between Dusty Springfield and Delbert McClinton and follows it immediately with the more familiar heartbreaking country soul of "Plainest Thing," then channels Emmylou Harris on "Laid a Highway."

On "Tambourine," Merritt establishes her comfort and ability to stomp the dust out of the cracks in the floorboards and then reflect on the aftermath as she sweeps up the mess she's made.

As Merritt acknowledges her desire to rattle the rafters with a little classic soul on "Tambourine," she reaffirms the creative conviction that allowed her to make the singular and - even two ' years later - surprising country/folk gossamer of "Bramble Rose."

Some critics and perhaps even some of her fans may have difficulty reconciling the two works as equally weighted expressions of Merritt's songwriting and performing capabilities, but she has very little trouble justifying the soulful exuberance of "Tambourine" and the introspection of "Bramble Rose."

"I am both of those women," says Merritt with a laugh. "Those forces live within me, and I must make peace with them day to day, both the wild extrovert and the extremely private introvert. It's not an easy job. The stage is a very safe place, in its own way. I mean, it's not real life."

If "Bramble Rose's" whisper truly requires any kind of defense against the joyful shout of "Tambourine," Merritt offers the time honored explanation of a beginner's overreaching expectations.

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