This a homecoming of sorts for Tift Merritt, returning to record her fourth album in the same North Carolina heartland that fostered her early admirer Ryan Adams. Like Adams, though, Merritt has moved some way from her country beginnings, and See You on the Moon finds her still hoping to shine in the mainstream.
It takes unusual cussedness to resist the music industry's conservatism, and Tucker Martine plain doesn't sound cussed. The producer may boast a Grammy nomination for a Bill Frisell album and a CV full of odd stuff like field recordings and the Microsoft Vista start-up music, but he just doesn't seem turned on by the uniqueness of Merritt.
Mixtapes is the album's least usual song, a nostalgic tumble of quirky detail: "I'm just making you mixtapes with homemade covers, analogue to show we're lovers..." At Martine's hands, though, the off-centre charm is nudged by choppy guitars and jostled by fidgety strings, and a distinctive voice is lost in a babble of soft pop.
In a sense, of course, Martine's production is exemplary: crystal clear, beautifully measured, uncluttered and punctuated with tasteful touches of viola, trombone and vocal harmony. Merritt's voice is confident, expressive and intimate. But this is all a matter of style - and without the poetry of a Dar Williams, the pop hooks of a KT Tunstall or the eccentricity of a Regina Spektor, it's hard to see where it gets them.
See You on the Moon's mid-tempo anthems hover with a decorative shimmer that matches their wispy bedsit sentiments: "I don't want to fight any more", "We never talk about it", "Til' there was you." Only a throwaway cover of Kenny Loggins' Danny's Song catches the ear, the craft of a rootsy 40-year-old ballad giving Merritt a more immediate, vibrant presence than all the burnished pop.
See You on the Moon may be Tift Merritt's breakthrough. On the other hand, like Allison Moorer (another talented singer-songwriter who has strayed from her country roots to diminishing returns), she may find that tradition can be a privilege dearly surrendered.