Tift Merritt’s Traveling Alone: Her Best Album

by delarue

Tift Merritt’s Traveling Alone is THE lead guitar album of 2012. She’s probably one of the least likely people you might expect to be behind something like this. But she deserves it. As somebody who first hit about ten years ago, in the dying hours of the radio-and-records era (she’s on Yep Roc at the moment: tomorrow, who knows) she’s had to shift gears to make a living on the road. And she’s done it: that’s where she is right now, on US tour. Good songwriters always have their choice of good musicians, but the band on this album is monstrous. Marc Ribot and pedal steel virtuoso Eric Heywood team up for some of the most gorgeous interplay on any rock or country record in recent memory, alongside multi-instrumentalist and Laurie Anderson collaborator Rob Burger plus Merritt’s longtime bassist Jay Brown and Calexico’s John Convertino on drums. Producer Tucker Martine finally got a real band to work with – as opposed to the meh-ness of the Decemberists et al. – and obviously had a blast with all the multi-tracking. Songs typically start out spare, even skeletal, but quickly build to a rich, lush thicket of guitars firing at you every which way.

And yet, Merritt’s nuanced voice is still front and center, often trailing down suspensefully at the end of a phrase to draw the listener even closer. She’s lived up to the comparisons ever since people started calling her the new Linda Thompson. The songs here follow a trail of existential angst, a wistfully knowing solitude: Merritt has never written better, or had so much command of a turn of phrase as she does here. For those who like the idea of Lucinda Williams but find the real thing overrated, this is for you.

There’s a romantic side to being alone, and Merritt is no stranger to that. The theme permeates much of the album, beginning with the title track, where she admits to enjoying it, stress and all. This one has Richard and Linda Thompson all over it, Ribot adding sweet tremolo and then a fiery, distorted solo. Sweet Spot radiates longing but not desperation: it’s Williams without the drunken rasp, over a lush bed of steel and tremolo guitar, Ribot taking it to Memphis with his solo. They go deeper into soul with Drifted Apart, Merritt going for Laura Cantrell-ish understatement [memo to self – who is that guy on the faux-Orbison high harmonies? Aaron Neville?]. Still Not Home grafts a slapdash My Sharona riff onto a brisk, anxious country shuffle, Merritt nailing the tense exhilaration as she makes her way out: “All the windows open and the wind and the wheels, nobody can tell me the way that feels.”

The band goes for a slow, hypnotic, bucolic early evening ambience on Feeling of Beauty, Berger’s piano blending with the steel and the web of acoustic guitars: “I’m all right, thanks for asking/Got a few hopes in my basket,” Merritt sings, misty and sultry. Too Soon to Go, a noir countypolitan tune, is just plain gorgeous with its richly intertwining guitar leads, building to an elegant conversation between Ribot and Heywood. Small Talk Relations is arguably the most intense song here, a towering piano anthem that rises from almost skeletal to lushly orchestrated. Merritt matter-of-factly develops her metaphors to a big crescendo:

Workmen in the street below
Softly play the radio
The crowd just turns to leave
A secret current underneath
Cannot be heard above the din below

A plaintive Appalachian ballad fired up with reverb guitar, steel and Rhodes piano, Spring is a defiant defense of living at the edge, existentially speaking. “Only for a minute just to be alive, before I hit the ground just below the spine,” Merritt intones bittersweetly as the song takes flight, up to a viscerally searing Heywood solo: it’s the high point of the album. Ribot’s slashing, bluesy solo out is pretty adrenalizing too.

The next couple of tracks take a surprisingly effective detour into 80s-flavored pop. The first one, To Myself, wears a backbeat country disguise: you want to hate this, but the hook is just plain irresistible. Likewise, In the Way is the Cure, 1986, with the deluxe Americana package: jauntily pulsing ragtime piano, lusciously watery layers of vintage chorus-box guitar and an artful multitracked solo. The closing cut, Marks, a towering breakup ballad, builds slowly to a fiery tangle of guitars, snarling, resonating and jangling as Merritt reaches for the metaphor in the pocket of her winter coat. Albums like this are hard to write about because it’s impossible to resist the temptation to replay the songs – and then they become distractions. Hopefully this is sufficient inspiration for you to investigate it.