It’s funny sometimes the coincidences in life. In February I sat down and spent ninety minutes interviewing Chris Merritt by phone about his album Virginia Is For Hoverers, at which point I learned of his yet-uncompleted follow-up to said album, which he argued “is going to be the first album that totally fulfills my vision as an artist,” pushing to escape the Ben Folds comparison which has dogged him for years.
Skip forward six months: mere days after I finally am able to allow the interview to see the light of day via this blog, and Merritt finally releases Virginia Is For Hoverers II to the internet masses, and we all get to hear what he’d been talking about all those months ago. And while the resulting fifteen songs aren’t going to fully put away the Folds comparisons, it is immediately clear that Merritt has been working hard to merge a wider array of influences into his signature sound, including frequent (and very welcome) echoes of Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys in his closely-tracked vocal harmonies.
Hoverers II is a complicated listen, however, and is not likely to be a recommended “first stop” for those of you out there who are new to the sounds of Chris Merritt. For neophytes, I’d still recommend listening to Pixie and the Bear and Virginia Is For Hoverers before digging too deeply into the newer material. That said, the songs on this new record reward patience and close listening. And while he’ll never put the Folds comparisons away, I would argue that Hoverers II is an appropriate evolution of the Merritt sound, one which does finally show him developing a strong rhythm section and a distinctive style which can be built on as he reaches for a wider audience.
While the music here reveals its depths over repeated listens, Merritt’s signature sound includes frequent use of inventive syncopation and time signature variations, and his reliance on multi-tracked vocal harmonies and tightly-packed arrangements can sometimes create a sonic boom of sorts, with one or the other having to take the back seat. A good example would be “Surfin,” which builds to a big crescendo with at least half a dozen vocal tracks in full throated harmony, coupled with the piano backdrop . . . when everything drops away mid-song we get to hear the vocals on their own and the effect is stunning. One could be left wondering whether the song would have been more effective as a “vocals only” recording, though it remains effective in its current incarnation.
“White Boy,” the album’s strong but conflicted opener, suffers from a different kind of bloat. The song sounds like it could be a single candidate until midway through the song it develops a case of aural schizophrenia, shifting tone and structure throughout a relatively short three minutes in length, with a chorus eventually emerging that leads into a key-changed second-verse / bridge that defies the listeners’ attempts to sing along without a copy of the arrangement in front of us.
But lest I sound like I disliked the album, the reward of repeated listens is that many of this album’s songs are revealed to be among the best Merritt has written. “Big Girl” may be his strongest single candidate since “Madison,” with a sing-along chorus which will hook even the most ardent haters. “Walking On The Water,” meanwhile, updates an early album demo (“Mean It”) by adding drums and fuzzed-out bass that turn the track into a mind-bender when given the headphone treatment, giving the song added depth and resonance. It’s one case when the comparison to “Uncle Walter”-era Ben Folds should be worn as a badge of honor, since it’s been a good while since Folds wrote anything this musically inventive.
The album’s strongest moment comes at its center, when Merritt sings on “Margeaux” that he’s clearly let the love of his life slip away . . . we get another treat of Beach Boys vocals as Merritt sings that he’s been blind all this time. From the 2:14 mark onward in the song, the reasons Merritt’s songs resonate so strongly with his ardent fans can be declared self-evident.
So if you have heard the music of Chris Merritt in the past and longed for an album that could give Pixie and the Bear a run for its money from a compositional standpoint, you’re in for a real treat with Virginia Is For Hoverers II. If you’ve never heard him before but are willing to give the album a few listens to fully sink in, you could hardly make a pop music choice this year that would render bigger rewards. Then visit his website and download his “best of” album (free!) which will help direct you into the cavernous expanse known as his back catalog. Regardless of where you stand, Hoverers II is one of those rare pop albums that, like Regina Spektor’s Soviet Kitsch, manages to push the artistic envelope while hinting at a rare songwriting talent worthy of wider exposure. If Chris Merritt winds up getting the same acclaim, you’ll be able to say you heard it here first.