On her fifth studio album Tift Merritt continues to deliver the benchmark standard of songwriting and performance that has characterised her work since her 2002 debut, "Bramble Rose". With so many female performers crowding the Americana scene you have to bring something special to the table.
First of all, there is the voice - sweet, plaintive and sensual and then the lyrical and melodic original songs which, on "Traveling Alone", are loosely woven around the theme of solitude, that sense of being on your own. The scene is set by the sad melancholy title track with the spare accompaniment adding to that feeling of being apart.
Tift is at her best with slow tempo ballads and there are some magical songs in this collection blessed with enchanting arrangements. The poignant "Small Talk Relations" has Tift's plaintive voice and elegant phrasing caressing the haunting melody with piano, steel guitar and cello making such sweet music. The superb ringing steel of Son Volt's Eric Heyward is much in evidence on the lovely "Sweet Spot" with Calexico's John Convertino so solid on drums but it is always Tift playing centre stage.
However, the absolute linchpin of this album is the wonderful ballad "Drifted Apart", a stunning portrait of a dying affair. If there has been a better song about heartache written this century I'd sure like to hear about it. It is a duet of great beauty with Andrew Bird's ethereal tenor sounding eerily like the late Roy Orbison and in perfect counterpoint to Tift.
But the up tempo numbers bring their own rewards and with "Still Not Home" Tift evokes the sound of Emmylou Harris with driving percussion reminiscent of her Hot Band. But as good as the band is producer Tucker Martine, (who also produced Beth Orton's latest), wisely elected not to overwhelm Tift's voice and let her do full justice to her haunting songs and her own vision of alternative country.