By Bill Friskics-Warren
Americana insiders have been banking on Tift Merritt to become her generation's answer to Lucinda Williams or Emmylou Harris ever since the North Carolina-based singer-songwriter released her major label debut in 2002. That hasn't exactly happened, but since then she's quietly produced a series of smart, soul-inflected studio albums, the latest of which, produced by Tucker Martine (Sufjan Stevens, Spoon), might be her best yet. The record may lack the big billowy ballads and anthemic country-rock that distinguished Merritt's first couple of albums, but what it lacks in brashness and attitude - probably not her strongest suits - it more than makes up for in subtlety and depth.
The undulating "Never Talk About It" is both an incisive meditation on the ineffability of love and a terrific vehicle for Merritt's willowy but keening soprano. "Papercut" is impelled by a gentle funk undertow; "Feel of the World," an elegiac ballad, features vocals from Jim James of My Morning Jacket. "Mixtape," a song built around a sinewy string arrangement and an insinuating groove, recalls the slow-burning singer-songwriter soul of Bill Withers. Even Merritt's gauzy take of Loggins & Messina's "Danny's Song," an inspired but not exactly hip choice of covers, sounds right at home here.
"Everybody told me this is who you'll have to be," she sings to filigrees of piano and acoustic guitar in "The Things That Everybody Does." Judging by the self-possession that courses through the album's dozen performances, Merritt sounds comfortable in her own skin these days - perfectly happy with being and becoming herself.
Tift Merritt performs at Rams Head Tavern on June 7 and the Birchmere on June 16.
Recommended tracks: "Never Talk About It," "Mixtape," "Feel of the World"