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Thursday, June 21, 2007

XX Seersucker: Tift Merritt and Anna Fermin's Trigger Gospel

I was thinking that there was no way I'd have time to write up June's Secret Country show before I leave for Halifax. My insomnia, apparently, believes that the Seersucker Report is important enough to forego a night of sleep, though.
And so your Seersucker Alert Level: Stanford Cardinal.

Yes, indeed, just when it looked like Robbie had given up on his disturbing clothing agenda, he showed up for father's day in a light blue seersucker suit and adidas low tops. Seersucker, Robbie, really? Fine, if you want to go nuclear.

I will grant you that his Embittered Fathers' song, performed as a duet with Scott Ligon, did mitigate the seersucker to some extent. You have to admire a man who can get so passionately and descriptively embittered about an endless parade of neckties.

June's Secret Country show increased the number of women we've seen by an incalculable percent. (Literally incalculable, as its division by zero; I'm only not counting Minton Sparks because she wasn't a billed performer.) Robbie brought out Tift and Anna at the same time, and there wasn't a single question about the Eagles.

Instead, he started by asking them about their vocal training. Both responded that they'd overused, abused, and injured their voices before they ever sought out formal training and learned that voices are Big C Catholics (i.e., everything good in life is bad for your voice; Not sex, I suppose. Unless you're a screamer. But that didn't come up in the interviews).

The interview had a vibe to it that was kind of strange to me. A definite sense that he was interviewing them as "FEMALE" singer/songwriters (e.g., he asked where they'd put themselves on a spectrum that included Lee ann Womack and Neko Case, and I was gratified that they seemed as baffled as I by this). Which, of course, they are, but I kind of felt like, "They're just like you Robbie, they get up in the morning and their pants on one leg at a time. Only then they put on bras and make gold records."

In more usual interview questions, he also asked about working with different producers and, as always, about the importance of home and place to their music, beginning with Anna, whose phenotype inevitably leads to heaping helpings of assumptions about how she must be OMG! blending her Filipino heritage into her music! In fact, she only spent the first year of her life in the Philippines, and her heart, her music, and most definitely her accent are pure Kenosha, WI, which is where she's spent the rest of her life so far.

Although she was on the bill as Anna Fermin, she and her band record under "Anna Fermin's Trigger Gospel". Robbie asked about this and she candidly said, "I can't do what I do without my band." Specifically she cited the fact that she only started to teach herself guitar (and to pursue music in any way, after attending the school of the Art Institute of Chicago) at 20, and called herself "a terrible guitarist."

That assessment is too harsh, I think, but certainly she leaves the squeadlies and meedlies to Trogdor the Burninator others (the band website and myspace page say that Scott Ligon plays guitar, but he spent the night chained to the keyboards [although seeing that he usually plays guitar explains an on-stage whinge about having never played a particular song on keyboard before] and I, blithely missed the guitar player's name, assuming I could look it up later: Sorry, guy whose name I missed. You rawked.)

In general, the band is a well-tuned machine with Joel Higgins on drums (ok, it's Paul Bivans, but the resemblance from the balcony was uncanny), the aforementioned Scott on the aforementioned instruments, and Michael Krayniak on bass.

They opened with "Are You Gonna Miss Me Too" off Oh the Stories We Hold, which without at all wishing to sound like I'm dissing it, is certainly calculated to dismiss any thoughts that Anna and/or Trigger Gospel are about some kind of Asian/Country fusion: It's a lovely, lyrical country song that shows off the sweetness, purity, and effortless quality of Anna's voice. And just in case you were still questioning her Kenosha street cred, I think they did "My Town" off the same CD next.

But if anyone is really questioning the all-American, decidedly country bent of these folks, they don't seem to care a bit. There are little moments that stray far, far from country, lyrically and musically, even in numbers like those two above, which otherwise sit pretty comfortably within a single genre. But some songs off Oh the Stories . . . show their broad comfort zone.

In particular, "White Birch," and "Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps," are funky and spine-tingling (more so live, but they still pop and sizzle on CD as I learned when I popped in Oh the Stories . . . Tuesday when I was volunteering at the OTSFM resource center). If someone held a gun to my head, I'd call them jazz, but they're certainly nothing like the repetitive, colorless, Norah Jones stuff, although I had to chuckle when I saw this CD cover (who's she trying to kid? You say your daddy's Ravi Shankar, but I'm thinking Don "no soul" Simpson), which is a synesthesic approximation of the songs I'm talking about. Certainlythere's too much twang in both for the Diana Krall end of the spectrum.

Their most recent CD, though, is Go. We heard "Where My Heart Begins," which is a love song, more sincere and literate than "Are You Gonna Miss Me Too," and more poetic than remarkable musically (very listenable, don't get me wrong, but "AYGMMT," was intriguing in its mixture of bog-standard-"I Still Miss Someone/Guess Things Happen That Way," country ballad and wholly original sound). This isn't too surprising as it started as a poem she'd written for her husband. We also heard "Heaven in My New Shoes," and "Yellow Rose of Texas" (again, that funky, jazzy, "When I'm 64" vibe), and their cover of Gram Parson's wonderful, wonderful "She," which just ruled.

Tift Merritt seemed nervous (although not too nervous to slam on American Idol and prefabrication repeatedly) during both the interview and her performance, despite the fact that she was significantly less "on the spot," by virtue of being a childhood Texan and lifelong North Carolinan (Carolingian?) and therefore pretty standard issue country person. She reminded me very strongly of a friend from college (who also happens to have been from Texas), so I read her nervousness as largely innate goofiness. When she took the stage, she in fact said, "I'm so glad you already know me a little bit and know that I'm really goofy, so I don't have to pretend."

It's funny that she kept returning to the issue of earning one's stripes, musically, and growing as a performer and band, rather than being rolled out on an assembly line. I certainly think that her sound during the show we saw and the . . . unstructured? . . . nature of her set speak to that, but then I see her CD covers (and also here) and I marvel at the package. She is a lovely woman who happens to look, in my opinion, nothing at all like either of the women manufactured for those covers.

She played alone (although her drummer was with her and "tuned" her guitar, for which he was roundly chastised the whole evening long) because she and her band are about to go back into the studio to record a follow-up to Tambourine, which she said she hopes will capture the joy and energy of their live performances. I can confirm the impressiveness of her energy. Her acoustic guitar was well worn to the right of the pick guard and atop the sound hole near the neck, courtesy of her somewhat unusual diagonal strum pattern and enthusiastic attack. She also played the electric piano like it was trying to get away from her, stripping off the jewelry that was interfering and flinging it to the floor when it rattled.

Her set was a mixture of stuff off her Bramble Rose debut, Tambourine, and new material for the about-to-be CD. She vowed not to tell us which were knew and only violated that promise half a dozen times or so.

As sleep catches up with me I'll try not to gift Tift short shrift, pleasing assonance or not, and remember as much of her set as possible. I know we heard "Virginia, No One Can Warn You," which M has from somewhere else (and which caught my ear considerably more hearing/seeing Tift perform it life than it has if/when I've heard it in the car); "Good-Hearted Man," sounds from the title like it will be Stoic Female Country Ballad #36 and is so very not in the best ways. "Write My Ticket," similarly, is triumphant country homecoming song turned on its head. In addition to really liking the song, I will always have fond memories of it because Tift apologized for it profusely, assuring us that she wrote it about New York and not Chicago.

Like Anna and Trigger Gospel, Tift is solidly country. In many of her songs, her big, rich voice is more in line with what you hear from contemporary female country singers than is Anna's. (That's not meant to be a slam: Unlike many contemporary pop singers, the problem with country is usually not that they can't sing, it's just that they insist on singing such inane, soulless drivel.) But like Anna, her voice, her songwriting, and musicianship stretch well beyond the bounds of country into jazz, torch songs, straight-up smart pop, and a number of other genres that are currently dribbling out my sleep-deprived ears. From what I heard her both sing and say, it seems that she's not going to be building a fence around her bad country self any time soon, either. To hell with good neighbors, right?

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