Late into Night, the collaborative LP from alt-country chanteuse Tift Merritt and classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein, the piano line of the traditional "I Will Give My Love an Apple" hangs ominously in the air, each note decaying into the next. Merritt enters solemnly, her voice handling the words like an Appalachian murder ballad. Though the 14 tracks of Night consume nearly an hour, these 106 seconds are its most affecting and revelatory, largely because they illustrate an artistic conversation between these two musicians. Even when she's writing sad songs, Merritt has a tendency to sing like she's chipper; here, however, her foreboding tone is magnetic, a ghost beckoning with the sweetest song. Dinnerstein's ability to stretch both time and tune here suggest that she is playing off the charts, relying more on personal feeling than proper form.
What's more, Dinnerstein allows that trickle of notes to bleed into the next track, the worried but hopeful Merritt original "Colors." Merritt's voice and guitar are characteristically buoyant, but Dinnerstein's playing underlines the self-doubt embedded in these verses. Eventually, they both perk up, gliding through the song's back half with a newly awakened mutual assurance.
Dinnerstein and Merritt started working together after the singer interviewed the instrumentalist for a magazine years ago; they debuted their duo project in 2011 at Duke University before recording this material last summer during an extended session at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York. The best songs find them connecting as equals, as on the graceful opener "Only in Songs" and their remarkably fluid take on "Dido's Lament."
Unfortunately, that's not a consistent quality. Though Night collects several marvelous moments, they do sometimes get subsumed by the project's weight of self-importance. Merritt and Dinnerstein both take solo turns, for instance, with Merritt handling "Wayfaring Stranger" and one of her own and Dinnerstein taking on Leonard Cohen variations and a Bach prelude. Charitably, those breaks in the collaboration confirm the talents of both parties; alternately, they simply take too much space on an album that could benefit from a modicum of economy.
Still, at its best, Night doubles with gorgeous and surprising material, a testament to Merritt's growth since she debuted in the smallest Triangle rock clubs as a gal with a guitar.
Label: Sony Classical