Tift Merritt, southern intellectual, put out what was arguably the most delicious guitar album of 2012 with a searing rock band including both Marc Ribot and Eric Heywood. Having convinced the eminent noir guitarist to play country and the country pedal steel virtuoso to play noir, Merritt has taken an abrupt detour into moody art-rock with her new album Night with pianist Simone Dinnerstein. As the title implies, it’s a nocturnal song cycle. As a singer, Merritt has never stopped growing: here she reminds that she’s just as competent at jazz as Patsy Cline probably would have been had she lived. As a songwriter, Merritt doesn’t appear to have any ceiling, leaping effortlessly from oldschool C&W to hypnotic chamber pop. Although she made her first big splash playing Bach – her recording of the Goldberg Variations topped the classical charts a few years back – Dinnerstein’s close attention to emotional detail makes her a perfect bandmate for Merritt in more Romantic moments such as these. The whole album is streaming at NPR (don’t forget to mute the sound for about the first thirty seconds of ads). They’re playing Merkin Concert Hall tonight, March 21 at 7:30 PM; as of this writing, tickets are still available.
Only in Songs sets the tone, a understatedly aching, terse, almost skeletal waltz, voicing a longing for a place “where people believe things can really change” and all the implications of that line. Merritt gives it the same kind of understated, crepuscular tension that Sam Llanas often evokes in more subdued moments. From there Dinnerstein takes over and they segue into an English translation of Schubert’s Night & Dreams, marvelously lowlit by Merritt’s harmonica in the background. Don’t Explain reaches beyond Billie Holiday wee-hours mist to a vivid ache as Dinnerstein alternates between spacious block chords and rapidfire, precise ripples – third-stream vocal jazz has seldom been so affecting.
The two reinvent Dido’s Lament, a Henry Purcell theme, with a plaintively neoromantic gleam. I Shall Weep at Night, a co-write with jazz piano icon Brad Mehldau, is a showcase for Dinnerstein’s ability to channel any emotion she wants, moving from creepily hypnotic to a big reflecting-pool crescendo and then back.
Merritt blends both starkness and bluesy sophistication into a solo guitar version of Wayfaring Stranger. Dinnerstein anchors her arrangement of a Bach E Minor Prelude (Bach wrote more than one: this one’s numbered BWV 855a) with an understatedly jazzy touch in the lefthand. The acoustic version of Merritt’s Still Not Home here strips it to a lingering, bluegrass-tinged, restless unease. The duo follow a hypnotically dreamy take of the old folk song I WiIl Give My Love an Apple with Merritt’s Colors, which with its guarded optimism and nuanced vocals against minimalistically resonant piano has the feel of an early Dolly Parton classic.
Cohen Variations, a series of solo piano variations on Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne by Daniel Felsenfeld, builds to an austere, wary, indie classical edge. It’ll resonate with anyone who’s ever sat down at the piano to play Hallelujah and thought, “hmm, let’s make this really dark.”
The two elevate the title track, a Patti Griffin tune, to an elegant majesty. With Merritt’s nuanced, smoky vocals, Feel of the World is an uneasy, gospel-tinged reflection on triumph and joy that without a firm grip would be lost forever. The only time the record falls flat is at the end, with a brave but misguided attempt to redeem a cloying easy-listening radio ditty. Otherwise, chamber pop doesn’t get any better than this.