Up here in the United States, the nation that is central to the whole of the Earth, the word "country" has localized connotations. We don't regularly consider the presence of other "countries", we think in terms of endless interstate stretches among an impossibility of soybeans and corn, abstract quaintness among simple folk that doesn't exactly exist if you live there, and most pointedly - America's Music. Big cowboy hats. Trucks and boots. Pretty girls with honey voices. I believe it was all a creation of some sharp Nashville marketers to present this definition of "country" and thereby, a definition of "America" through it that casts its veneer over politics, lifestyle, religion, everything. I'm waiting for Barack Obama to pop up in a Stetson and quote Willie Nelson.
Some of us know better; we've interfaced with actual "country" within as well as countries without and understand the nuggets of Americana better by seeing them in the bigger picture, but it is difficult to maintain focus on that picture. Noted Americana champs No Depression are going through the last depressing production cycle as I write this, and one of the women it saw as worthy a representative, Tift Merritt, had to leave the country (both "country" and the United States) to find her voice anew.
Another Country was composed while Merritt was in self-imposed exile in Paris, and compared to the positively effervescent Tambourine that precedes it in her catalog, it appears that Paris allowed her to slow down and take a close look at who she is. Just compare the covers: on Tambourine, she is all lip gloss and bar-ready, on Another Country, she appears scrubbed clean against a blue sky, partially obscured by the sun's glare.
The comparative marketing semiotics fit the music as well - Another Country is imbibed with a sweet clarity throughout. There is nary a slide guitar or brushed drum out of place in the burbling brook of all-media-friendly instrumental ambience. It serves as a platform from which Merritt guilelessly emerges. The opening numbers "Something to Me" and "Broken" both possess the sheen necessary to be on a Julia Roberts movie soundtrack, but there is something unassuming about Merritt that separates her from the pack. She sounds fragile, holding back a little, but resolutely there - I think that I'll break, but I bend, she sings in the latter tune.
The title track puts her voice against a piano melody, pleading I wanna go too, I wanna go with you in that sappy but dead-on way only a country song can. Tift Merritt paints a lot of the same pictures that other country/alt-country divas do, but she does it with a more delicate brush. She's not road-wise like Lucinda Williams, doesn't have Gillian Welch's distant resolve, thankfully avoids Cat Power's affectations and is missing Shelby Lynne's transparent aspirations for stardom. She's right there in the middle, trying.
Most of the album trots along on these sun-dappled acres, but there are a couple louder corners explored. "My Heart is Free" is a tremolo-and-organ-filled tale of a soldier leaving his body: I saw the hands of Jesus, I saw the shores of Normandy, I saw 100,000 weary lost and homesick boys like me. Given country music's polemical take on US foreign policy - usually on one side or another - it is refreshing to hear this that speaks from the middle, first-person from those that have to operate in that nether space of incomprehensible, tactile action. "Tell Me Something True" is on the other hand, a horn-laden soul-infused pop bliss. On both of these, Tift Merritt's tranquil croon seems at first out of place. She doesn't quite have the rage for a war song or the swing for post-Motown, but each song is all the stronger for the vulnerability she exhibits. She is, on these tracks, a sweet soul thrust onto these stages, making it happen with the resources at hand, which is what we all do all the time. By leaving the confines of America, and by stepping back from the sheen of Tambourine, she's found something sweet, sad and real, and that is what "country" is really about.
Photo by Mark Borthwick, from tiftmerritt.com