With oodles of critical praise but disappointing commercial response, Tift Merritt's terrific 2002 debut was a qualified success. On her follow-up two years later, she gradually but decidedly moves her ringing country rock toward a more classic soul sound. With producer George Drakoulias -- who mined similar territory with Maria McKee -- providing the musical muscle, the album is an impressive accomplishment. Merritt sure has the pipes for this stirring soul/Americana music. She sings with an aching acquiescence common to country artists such as Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton, but belts out these tunes with the power of Linda Ronstadt in her prime. Drakoulias wisely places her tough yet tender vocals front and center in the mix, leaving her faceless but competent backup musicians to carry the bluesy twang she has perfected here. Dusty Springfield and McKee have both covered this ground, but on Memphis soul shots like "Good Hearted Man" and especially "Your Love Made a U Turn" with full, blaring horns and R&B backing vocals, the effect is explosive and revelatory. "Ain't Looking Closely" takes its ringing guitar straight from Roger McGuinn's Byrds days, but the meaty approach and chorus is strictly Southern. The blues that infuses "Still Pretending" adds a torchy Dwight Yoakam/George Jones approach with Merritt projecting hurt resignation on top of subtle strings and a classic country sound out of the '60s. "The Plainest Thing" strips down the backing to bare organ, brushed drums, and spare guitar, leaving plenty of room for Merritt's luxurious voice. But it's the more upbeat tracks that rule, as Merritt and Drakoulias' firm control and extraordinary sense of dynamics shoot this album into orbit. Tambourine is a remarkably mature, confident, and commanding release that defines then rides its groove with no low points. It should make Merritt the star she deserves to be.
AllMusic Review by Hal Horowitz