Alt-country fans will surely remember Cliff Retallick as the keyboard-playing force behind the strangely beautiful Mercury Dime. Unlike many of his peers, who gravitated toward country music after flirtations with punk and pop, Retallick is a small-town boy (he resides in minute Faith, N.C.) who grew up listening to country and bluegrass. But rather than pick up a guitar or mandolin, Retallick's piano teacher mother steered him toward the keys--and not the honky-tonk keys either. Retallick is one of the few alt-country piano players who is proudly influenced by classical music. And, though blessed with a natural country voice that seems almost tearful at times (think of a male Tammy Wynette), Retallick writes dreamy, introspective lyrics that are more likely to make you reflect on your soul than cry in your beer.
Mercury Dime's Yep Roc release, Darkling, was a soaring, gospel-tinged masterpiece. So why doesn't Retallick's solo effort compare? Perhaps because this is a classic example of too much of a good thing. The CD unfortunately arrived without any liner notes, but it seems pretty obvious that Retallick is playing most, if not all, of the instruments. It's not that he isn't capable; he is. But the songs completely lack any sort of interplay or creative spark--except when it comes to the keyboards. Whereas Mercury Dime had Alan Wyrick's slide guitar, and Darryl Jones's pedal steel to balance and ground Retallick's soaring visions, Retallick alone floats higher and higher until those wax wings melt, and the music can't help but crash. It doesn't help that on some songs he appears to want to follow Joe Henry, a former alt-country genius, into smooth, electronic R&B territory, a misguided move at best for both artists.
The situation isn't completely hopeless, though. Retallick's playing and singing are flawless, and his lyrics as wistful and intelligent as ever. All he really needs is someone to steer when his head is in the clouds.