North Carolina native Tift Merritt seems to find inspiration in her surroundings. Both geographically and collaboratively, where she is and whom she is with, play an important role in crafting the mood and tone of her beguiling confessionals and charismatic character sketches. Over the course of her decade-plus career, Merritt has followed her creative muse wide and far, setting up workshops in self-described “places that are hard to see and not easy to send postcards from” like Bynum, North Carolina and Marfa, Texas or jetting towards the city life and living abroad in Paris for a spell.
If Tift Merritt's body of work so far has shown anything, it’s that she seems incapable of making an uninteresting or emotionally dishonest record, and she can work in a number of different ways and still sound like herself. Traveling Alone, Merritt's fifth studio album, was recorded in Brooklyn with producer Tucker Martine, and for these sessions, Merritt and her studio band cut the bulk of the material live in the studio, with a group of stellar accompanists including Marc Ribot on guitar, John Convertino on percussion, Eric Heywood on pedal steel, and Jay Brown on bass. The close interaction of the musicians is a large part of the sound of Traveling Alone -- hearing them kick into gear in the intro to "Still Not Home" is a thrill -- but despite having a band of top-flight players behind her, Merritt is very much the focus of Traveling Alone throughout, and she’s in typically excellent form.
Like many singers in the roots rock genre, New Yorker-by-way-of-North Carolina Tift Merritt aspires to write like Lucinda and sing like Emmylou. Her plainspoken songs are both straightforward and ambiguous, as though no one emotion—grief, heartbreak, happiness, detachment—is absolute. And she sings those songs in a voice that sounds warm and sympathetic, but also a bit secretive, as though she might be withholding something crucial and precious from her listeners.
Since incorporating some vintage Southern soul into her repertoire on 2004’s Grammy-endorsed Tambourine, singer-songwriter Tift Merritt has settled further into a more predictable and far less distinctive brand of Americana on each new album, and that trend continues on Traveling Alone. Producer Tucker Martine, also behind 2010’s See You on the Moon, adds only a handful of flourishes that distinguish Merritt’s style from that of Kathleen Edwards, Caitlin Cary, Patty Griffin, or any of the countless other women on the Americana scene, while Merritt’s songwriting here often lacks her trademark, bright-eyed wit. What’s most shocking about Traveling Alone, however, is that Merritt’s usually reliable voice is in such poor form that not even her singing can carry the album through its most tepid moments.
Tift Merritt The touch of sweet sadness in Tift Merritt’s voice has rarely served her better than it does on “Traveling Alone,” due out on Yep Roc on Tuesday. Recorded in Brooklyn with Tucker Martine in the producer’s chair, it’s an album bound by restlessness. “I don’t know who I am ….