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A few years back, much music-biz faith was placed in one Shannon McNally, a young, sultry-voiced hottie whose uncanny knack for conjuring the golden era of El Lay radio pop was supposed to light up SoundScan and make the hearts of Capitol Records executives go pitter-patter—or at least ka-ching. Flash forward to 2004, though, and we find that while McNally remains a hottie, she’s also an also-ran: a no-hit wonder with a Web site that gets updated on a regular basis and that’s about it.

I blame Sheryl Crow. You might think that Crow’s success would portend good things for the Shannon McNallys of the world, but the opposite has actually been true. Crow scored a hit with a rewrite of “Stuck in the Middle With You” on her very first album, and ever since, the bizzers have had about as much patience for cultivating their female artists’ careers as Dubya has had for diplomacy. Just ask the Grammy-certified Shelby Lynne, who can’t pry her way onto the radio dial these days. Or poor Liz Phair, who apparently had to raid the dELiA*s catalog and sell her soul to the Matrix just to get her last one into record stores. Or, for that matter, Tift Merritt.

From the lineup of heavy hitters who constitute her studio band to the high-gloss press kit for her second and latest album, Tambourine, there’s something a little too-too about the Texas-born, North Carolina–raised singer. There’s something vaguely desperate-seeming about the whole enterprise, in fact. The honchos over at Lost Highway must be biting their nails down to their knuckles: If they can’t sell this one, the sort of high-caliber singer-songwriter stuff they specialize in may well be DOA, at least as far as commercial viability goes.

Consider “Stray Paper,” Tambourine’s razzle-dazzle opener. It’s a little bit country, a little bit rock ’n’ roll, of course, and it’s decked out with words that Lucinda Williams—another perpetual comer whose sales never quite synch up with her notices—could have ghostwritten with her poet/professor father, Miller Williams: “Cigarettes in the glove box with the classified ads,” sings Merritt in an achy-breaky warble, “Ashes and silver worn into your hands.” Images of bar-napkin mash notes and “[g]as station quarters” soon follow, and anyone who pines for the times when “rock poetry” was first losing its oxymoron status will be well and truly hooked from the get-go. I kid you not.

But “Stray Paper” isn’t even the best of the bunch. “Good Hearted Man,” three minutes and change of pure soul-pop bliss replete with some punchy brass and plenty of, yes, tambourine, spins an epic romance out of a chance encounter between two people on a subway. “Still Pretending,” a gently swaying ballad perfectly suited for late nights when, y’know, the kids are fast asleep, simmers with the heat of things left unsaid. “I guess I’m supposed to lock you out,” Merritt purrs. “I guess I’m supposed to play it tough/But I see how you look at me.” And on the Tom Petty–ish country-rocker “Late Night Pilgrim,” Merritt goes “looking for redemption in the underground” and ends up running into an image of herself as a “fool who’s dealing cards/To a ghost who’s running late.”

Of course, the lyrics wouldn’t matter a whit if it weren’t for the album’s top-shelf collection of memorable tunes—not to mention Merritt’s surefire knack for carrying them. As a singer, Merritt falls somewhere between (surely you remember) Lou Ann Barton and Williams, half honky-tonk angel, half melancholy cowgirl. Producer George Drakoulias—the man who made both the Black Crowes and the Jayhawks household names in the sort of households Tambourine is likely to be played in—knows when his lady should be left by her lonesome and when she needs a little backup from a gospelish choir.

And that crack band doesn’t hurt, either. Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell scatters simple, sinewy lead lines across the album, blessing poignant tunes such as “Plainest Thing,” a song about a song that John Barth could adapt for a novel, and “Shadow in the Way,” the rollicking set-closer, with hooks large enough to hang slabs of meat on. And Maria McKee, the erstwhile Lone Justice minx who was the Merritt (or perhaps the McNally) of her mid-’80s heyday, is also on hand, contributing silky-soft harmonies to the radio-ready “Write My Ticket” as well as the ever so slightly rougher “Late Night Pilgrim.” Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench shows up, too, pulling a double shift on “Laid a Highway,” lacing infectious bits of piano and melodica through casually strummed chord changes that knock on heaven’s door before heading out toward Bruce’s badlands.

So Tambourine is both assured and impressive. And satisfyingly restrained: There’s no twangier-than-thou posturing here, and, aside from the too-bloozy “I Am Your Tambourine,” no Ryan Adams–esque this-country-boy-knows-how-ta-rawk bombast, either. Taken together with recent albums by the likes of the Tarbox Ramblers (A Fix Back East), Ron Sexsmith (Retriever), and Marah (20,000 Streets Under the Sky), Merritt’s latest is enough to make you think that maybe, just maybe, there’s a renaissance afoot in the long-neglected field of rock ’n’ roll wordsmithery, rootsy-adult division.

OK, fine: Maybe that’s overstating the case a bit. Still, if Merritt can just get a decent number of Tambourine units shifted, I intend to take that as an excellent sign for lyric-sheet junkies everywhere—and maybe a timely lifeline for Shannon McNally. Word is her label is threatening to make her collaborate with Sheryl Crow.CP