Expectations are a bitch. Among other things, they make you feel disappointment when something turns out to be just very good instead of a masterpiece. And nothing fuels expectations like a large and lengthy build-up. The ever-escalating build-up for Tift Merritt began with the release of 1998's The Garden Place compilation, which featured her "Lullaby" as its sultry centerpiece. Four years later, with stops along the way for a 7-inch and an EP recorded with the Two Dollar Pistols, Merritt and her band the Carbines finally have a full-length release on the shelves, and it's, well, very good.First, the beefs: The general sound of the recording, characterized by a lack of crispness, keeps Bramble Rose from ascending higher for me. A couple of songs, namely "Virginia, No One Can Warn You" and "Diamond Shoes," struggle to rise above their close kinship to the fledgling, laid-back country-rock of the early '70s. And while the playing is solid and tasteful throughout (with multi-instrumentalist Greg Readling, in particular, shining on pedal steel and organ), I can't fight the occasional desire for something beyond solid and tasteful. Blame those damn expectations.
That said, the work of the Carbines does provide a nice frame for Bramble Rose's main attraction: Tift Merritt's voice. It's a versatile instrument that, like Maria McKee's, can bring to mind Dolly Parton one minute and a church-taught soul singer the next. (Speaking of McKee, the spunky "Neighborhood," Bramble Rose's one rocker, would have fit perfectly on Lone Justice's debut.) The mid-tempo pair of "Trouble Over Me" and "I Know Him Too" deftly travel the middle ground between the mountains and Muscle Shoals, and they succeed in making a strong impression.
But three songs make the album for me--three moments when the words, the voice and the mood all come together perfectly. "Bird of Freedom" (think The Stones in, ironically, "No Expectations" mode) finds Merritt stretching lyrically, and the listener gets to share in the exhilaration of being this close to overreaching. The album-capping "When I Cross Over" is an impossibly lovely country-gospel number. And the heart of Bramble Rose is "Sunday," a hushed powerhouse that I can imagine Aretha Franklin considering when she hit fame, albeit briefly, for the '67 session that birthed "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)." Merritt creates a deceptively simple scene--"I'm gonna leave the windows open/When I feel like getting dressed"--that speaks volumes.
In just the time it's taken to write this, I've started to rethink the opening. In a Sheryl Crow world, maybe it only takes three stunning songs to make a masterpiece.