Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Concert Review: Tift Merritt at Stuyvesant High School Auditorium, NYC 7/1/09

You heard it here first: Tift Merritt is the future of American pop music. What she sings isn’t particularly edgy, but it’s not stupid. Last night the North Carolina-bred songwriter made fun of the promoters who’d moved her scheduled show at Rockefeller Park indoors even as the sky was clearing. She was spooked by the prospect of playing in a high school: “Not a good time,” she recalled, practically shuddering. Which made sense. As catchy and warmly accessible as her songs are, there’s a welcome intelligence in her writing, and her voice is a dead giveaway. Her songs come across as something of the missing link between Sheryl Crow and Aimee Mann (Merritt loves those major/minor changes that Mann works so masterfully). Vocally, Linda Thompson is the obvious comparison. Merritt’s recorded work plays up her stoic resignation and haunting sense of nuance, her voice sometimes dropping off the table for dramatic effect much in the style of  the legendary Britfolk chanteuse; last night she also showed off a grit and a liveliness that doesn’t always cut through in the studio.

Playing solo, alternating between acoustic guitar and electric piano (and electric guitar on one song), she won over a tough crowd with casual charm and one memorable tune after the next. As Roscoe Ambel famously said, if a song sounds good at its barest, stripped down to just guitar and voice, it’ll sound great with a band. Much of what she played could have been ecstatically fun with a good crew behind her – you know how much musicians love a smart, intuitive tune. Using just your typical building-block major and minor chords, she introduced three new songs along with several from her most recent studio cd Another Country. Of the new ones, the best was a fast yet pensive backbeat-driven number exploring the theme of finally figuring out to what to do once you’ve gotten what you want after years of searching high and low. Of the less brand-new songs, Broken, a vivid, bitterly soaring anthem evoking the struggles of her early days in music, packed a punch as did Keep You Happy, with its crescendoing chorus and realization that tying your happiness to another person’s is bound to drag you down there with them. Merritt also impressed with her gospel-tinged piano work on a handful of ballads as well as a bouncy yet somewhat eerie soul-inflected number. She even went up the scale to end one of them with a fun Floyd Cramer flourish. 

In a level playing field without the now-flatlining major labels, Merritt’s success gives hope to a new generation of writers creating accessible yet intelligent pop music, Ward White, Kirsten Williams, Nicholas Howard and Sharon Goldman among legions of others. Merritt is based in New York now, so we ought to see more of her in the months to come which promises to be a treat considering what a songwriting roll she’s on right now.

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July 2, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

CD Review: Nicholas Howard – God Is in the City

Unlike what the title might have you believe, this isn’t a gospel album although there is a gospel influence in a lot of the songs. With his raspy tenor voice, Jackson Heights, New York’s own Nicholas Howard delivers a whole lot of hooks and a feel for soul music that blends a vintage Detroit and Philly sound, circa 1970. It’s definitely retro yet infused with new ideas and fresh energy – this guy is putting his own stamp on it rather than just being derivative. Refreshingly, he’s got a real band behind him rather instead of the ubiquitous synth, drum machine and maybe a handful of samples in what’s left of “R&B.” This could be what John Legend might dream of making if he didn’t have the corporate overseer standing over him, whip in hand, ready to crack it the second he does anything original or interesting. No autotune here either: God was definitely in the studio when this was recorded.

The title track is a big gospel-fueled anthem yet is extremely simple and terse. It would make a good theme for a show like The Wire. In the middle, it goes doublespeed and then suddenly back to the main theme, an ambitious move that doesn’t really work.  So Much Left to Say is a slinky organ groove with a turn-of-the-decade sound, just around the time soul was getting orchestrated but before it lost that delicious trebly tube amp guitar feel. Horns come in and juice up the end of the chorus, then the song ends cold.

With bit of a reggae feel, My Hands Are Rough – “I need a drink, a dance or two, I am jonesing” would have been a big dancefloor hit in the 70s. Life Is a Mystery is quite a change, opening with a little quote from the James Bond theme and then getting carnivalesque, even noir. If Tom Waits was a soul singer he might do something like this. Howard maintains the mysterious vibe with Scotch on Her Lips, a slow jam where he’s fallen under the spell of a boozy witch, electric piano dripping eerily.

Blood from a Stone kicks off with a staccato piano riff, eventually building to an insistent, New Orleans-tinged “stay out of my life” anthem. Then it goes doublespeed as the organ swirls and the rubber meets the road. The gentle, Memphis-style 6/8 ballad Mother features some vivid Steve Cropper style guitar – it would be perfectly at home on a Robert Cray album. Different View takes a lazy Bill Withers-style groove and makes trip-hop out of it.

The cd winds up with the strikingly dark psychedelic Weimar blues of Carnival and the upbeat, horn-driven What If I’ve Shown You It All. You’re going to see this on our Best Albums of 2009 list at the end of the year. Watch this space for live dates.

June 12, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment