After all of the hubbub—the major-label production and promotion, the Parisian furlough, the exile to the independents—it simply seems wrong to suggest that Tift Merritt's most essential and appealing recording to date might be this, a 12-track solo take released on Vella Recordings, a band-run label that barely exists. But captured last November in a British church built with tawny stone in the 19th century, Merritt's second live recording, Buckingham Solo, restores the soft focus to her romantic songwriting and Southern-sundamaged voice. She thrives in such intimacy, keeping the storyteller impulses to a minimum and delivering 11 of her best (and George Harrison's "I Live For You") with the confidence and control that have sometimes slipped through her fingers on previous big-budget outings.
Consider the opening triptych, which scrambles the sequence of the first three tracks from last year's Another Country: Transposed to solo piano, that album's title track smolders with desire, Merritt's voice dipping to its deepest and climbing to its highest as she pleads, "I want to go, too/ I want to go with you." For the last verse of "Something To Me," she mutes her guitar strings and simply taps the song's steady rhythm into the big body of her acoustic. Sounded only against the walls of the church, the words of resolution—"I'll take a long day/ Come 'round the right way"—reflect a renewed audacity. And midway through "Broken," she adds an edge to her voice and sudden stops to her rhythm, tightening the ends of a rhyme as her narrator searches for something better.
Similar charms trickle through Buckingham Solo: Recast for one, Bramble Rose opener "Trouble Over Me"—in which Merritt expertly limns a game of cat-and-mouse between two new lovers—offers an unadorned vulnerability. Minus the march of drums and the lift of lead guitar, Tambourine's "Stray Paper" sounds like a desperate manifesto from a lover in the present trying to connect with some spark lost in the past. Merritt closes with the John Lennon/ Barack Obama homage "Do Something Good," which opens with polite proclamations about boundaries and war. It ends, though, with the image of a tiny newborn that has the chance to, of course, "do something good." It's a visage of infinite innocence and possibility that—after this unfussy and perfectly enjoyable offering—might fit Merritt's future, especially should she continue keeping it simple and spare around that gorgeous voice.
Tift Merritt plays solo at Fletcher Opera Theater Friday, May 1, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $22-$25. Her debut art exhibition, Other Countries, opens the same day at 6 p.m. at The Mahler (228 Fayetteville St.) The opening reception is Thursday, April 30, at 7 p.m.