Tift Merritt has become unexpectedly (and thankfully) prolific since she signed with Fantasy Records in 2008, after going four years without releasing a record. See You on the Moon is her third album in as many years, and from the first track, the gentle and soul-infused love song "Mixtape," she demonstrates that she can maintain solid quality control at this pace and does so with ease. See You on the Moon is a more spare and intimate-sounding set than 2008's Another Country, as if she learned a bit about the value of concision with her 2009 solo acoustic live set Buckingham Solo, but Merritt clearly works well with others (the backing musicians are uniformly great, and Jim James of My Morning Jacket contributes some solid harmonies on "Feel of the World"), and while the arrangements wisely avoid cluttering the clean landscapes of her melodies, producer and engineer Tucker Martine gives the recordings a full-bodied sound even when the performances are purposefully simple.
Daring to dig deeper Tift Merritt’s first three releases were so solid they seemed calculated; her shifts from alt-country (2002’s Bramble Rose) to soulful Americana (2004’s Tambourine) to homespun lo-fi (2008’s Another Country) were almost too surefooted to fully capitalize on the aching vulnerability that lay below the surface of nearly every song. Though See You On The Moon retains the singer’s classic polish, it’s her first album to successfully capture the intimate tone of her songwriting. Much of the credit for that goes to producer Tucker Martine (Sufjan Stevens, Laura Veirs, The Decemberists), who drapes her in pedal steel and drowsy trails of electric guitar, highlighting every crack and crease in Merritt’s voice.
A Grammy nomination for Best Country record (for 2004’s Tambourine) notwithstanding, I’m not sure Tift Merritt has ever made a straight country record. Tambourine is best described as a soul record, of all things, while 2008’s Another Country turned to Charlie Sexton for its guitar work. But the “country” label seems to stick, possibly because Merritt’s voice can range from straightforward Linda Ronstadt to ethereal Emmylou Harris.
At one point on her disappointing 2008 album, Another Country, alt-country songstress Tift Merritt claims, "It isn't very often that I say just what I mean. " Much of the reason for that record's mediocrity can be explained by that line, as Merritt's willowy voice and limp folk-pop hooks found themselves floating off entirely into the ether upon being paired with frustratingly vague, moony lyrics choked with overcooked metaphors ("Night is a gypsy;" "I ran like the wildest horse"). Leaning hard on blithe mid-tempo grooves and useless pleasantries, Merritt was in danger of writing herself off wholly into benign irrelevance, a Sheryl Crow with some indie cred.
Polished bedsit balladry fails to shine. Ninian Dunnett 2010 This a homecoming of sorts for Tift Merritt, returning to record her fourth album in the same North Carolina heartland that fostered her early admirer Ryan Adams. Like Adams, though, Merritt has moved some way from her country beginnings, and See You on the Moon finds her still hoping to shine in the mainstream.