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North Carolina songbird, Tift Merritt’s fifth studio album Traveling Alone is the singer-songwriter’s to date. Recorded in Brooklyn in only eight days the New York resident manages to take her music to another level, such is the consistency of her material, playing and vocals. For there is a spark present greater than previous as producer Tucker Martine (The Decemberists), My Morning Jacket, Spoon) has the likes of Eric Heywood (The Jayhawks, Son Volt, Alejandro Escovedo, Ray LaMontagne), Marc Ribot (guitars, maxophone, ukelele) and John Convertino (drums, percussion) join Jay Brown (bass, harmony vocals) who has been with Merritt for 14 years. Plus there are guest slots from Andrew Bird, Rob Burger and Tony Scherr —that of Bird, especially makes has a big impact.


Merritt’s smart work as a songwriter ensures the album kicks away in great fashion. The musicians are in top form too as five prize tracks come straight off the bat. Title track ‘Traveling Alone’ after a sombre opening, like a new day awakening as day breaks the lyrics spill forth as her observation of life gets to move amidst brooding steel guitar, fiddle, percussion and steady rhythm as she speaks of being raised in the heat of the American south, and of being out there travelling alone, and how she has learnt the world is mean (or can be). Of with her cigarettes and a pickup truck she leaves town to try her luck. She has always had a taste for travelling alone, a feel fueled touring in support of her music. Especially via her recent tour with Mary Chapin Carpenter who treated her, royally and ensured there was always a piano available for her to noodle on before a show; and it was here some of her songs were born.  


Of the opening run ‘Sweet Spot’ and ‘Feeling Of Beauty’ both hit a typical Merritt groove. As does the likes of the piano aided ‘In The Way’ and gentle ‘Small Talk Relations’ as she pounds out a measured rhythm that rises and falls as emotional points of the song are underlined. Merritt’s ability to both pen intelligent lyrics (as she reflects on life's ever changing cycle and people as they grow) and to either caress them or let things rip make her an artist who, like the things she covers of the album, life, are ever evolving. Going forward in a near forceful fashion ‘Still Not Home’ sounds like it was plucked from Emmylou Harris’ Hot band days. No kidding! It has all the traits, a strong driving rhythm, plus restless lead and steel guitar (Heywood) and Tift leading from the front and matching the rocking beat. What a fabulous effort.


As for her duet (‘Drifting Apart’) with genial act, Andrew Bird here again I am taken back in time. On this occasion it is Bird’s (Roy) Orbison-esque vocals that marry perfectly with Merritt. So good is the combination another from them can’t come too soon. With the benefit of more magical steel guitar etc it sparkles like a rare diamond, then again Tift Merritt (and Bird too) are precious talents more people need to know about. Classy. ‘Spring’ is a most interesting affair as Merritt speaks of the mystery of it alongside that of a lover’s touch to the accompaniment of feisty guitar and hard driven rhythm and though it goes on just long enough it is one of those songs with its guitar solos sure to go down well with her admirers. Be sure to check out Traveling Alone and her visit in November.  


                                                            Maurice Hope       

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