Record Review 

Bo Diddley warned us that we shouldn't judge a book by its cover. But he never mentioned anything about albums. One glance at the sepia-toned shot of an innocent Tift Merritt looking forlornly over her shoulder speaks volumes about the music on the singer/songwriter's stirring debut.

While comparisons have been made to Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, Bramble Rose is more like the solo album Lone Justice's Maria McKee never made. Merritt croons her pure folk-country heart out, exuding C&W's classic tendencies in a breathy but controlled voice that'll effortlessly tear you apart. Loneliness, melancholy and broken hearts abound in the weepy ballads that dominate this mature first effort. Merritt and producer Ethan Johns keep the sound sparse, if not completely stripped down. Pedal steel, brushed drums and strummy guitars congeal for achingly melodic Sunday morning feel. The songs emerge from a focused artist comfortable in her skin and intent on unloading emotional baggage.

Like Julie Miller, Merritt has a languorous voice that transports the listener to emotional pit stops many would rather not visit. But that won't keep you from repeatedly playing this extraordinarily accomplished keeper -- one that's as classy as it looks.

Tift Merritt plays the Red Light Cafe Fri., June 28.


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