In prime-time country these days, the once-revered tradition of duet singing has given way to what are called "vocal events" at awards shows. In alternative-country circles, though, the form seems to be making a bit of a comeback: John Prine traded lines with a host of female partners on his last album; Steve Earle and Iris DeMent dueted in '99; and husband-and-wife team Buddy and Julie Miller are also singing together. At their best, these pairings worked because we could hear the artists not just singing to one another, but actually listening, wrestling with their problems -- and each other -- to powerful emotional effect.
From North Carolina, and even further outside the spotlight, the Two-Dollar Pistols and frontman John Howie offer their own collection of duets, enlisting Tift Merritt (lead singer of another NC roots-rock outfit, the Carbines) to complete the vocal team. Howie's lazy and craggy voice is a limited instrument, to say the least, but he gets the most out of it, especially on a fine Howie/Merritt original called "If Only You Were Mine."
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But it's Merritt's sweet-yet-stunning voice that dominates each track. This lack of balance means that the duet potential of classic country covers like "Just Someone I Used to Know" and "(I'm So) Afraid of Losing You Again" is never met, but Merritt's gifts keep you listening anyway. To be sure, her talent is plenty raw. Sometimes she seems to be adopting an art-school distance from her material; frequently, she sounds too indebted to her obvious models, with her voice alternately revealing a who's who of twangy divas, from Emmylou and Dolly to Maria McKee and Lucinda Williams. Almost as often, she falls victim to the bane of most great-voiced young vocalists: oversinging. But then, for maybe just a phrase or two, she discovers the song. In the hushed intimacy that she grants the concluding version of "One Paper Kid," we can hear her discovering herself, too, and her future. The Pistols have made a record that's never less than charming, but in Merritt, who is reportedly about to sign with Sugar Hill, you can hear something more interesting: potential.