In Brief: Merriment comes across as a more acoustic version of Eisley – twee, pretty, and on occasion quite breathtaking. But they need to work harder to develop their own sound instead of just settling for a mellower version of what their older siblings are doing.
Living in the shadow of an older sibling can be hard. I’m sure anyone who went to the same high school or college as an older brother or sister can probably testify to that, particularly if your skills or interests were completely different from theirs. Teachers probably expected you to simply be a mini-clone of whatever they were good at. A similar trend occurs with family members of well-known musicians – if your parents or older siblings amassed a following for doing X, then you darn well better do X and do it well, or else at least make yourself noteworthy for rebelling against X.
I bring this up because the two members of sister/brother duo Merriment are the younger sister and brother of the DuPree siblings who make up four-fifths of Eisley, one of my all-time favorite bands. (Those parents apparently won the DNA lottery.) Lead singer and primary songwriter Christie DuPree was probably still in diapers when Eisley was first formed (since I think Eisley’s youngest member at the time was still in the single digits), but I could be exaggerating. And I don’t know where her brother Collin DuPree falls in the birth order. I just know that what started out as a simple solo project for Christie slowly evolved into a collaborative effort as Collin would bring his guitar out to support her on tour, and at some point they gave themselves a band name and made it official. I somehow doubt that their family would be the type to stifle creativity to the point where they had to sound like what Eisley was doing, but since you’ve got a similar vocalist with a similar lyrical style, and the only real musical difference being that it’s more stripped down and reliant on acoustic instruments, Merriment can sound a bit too close to their older siblings for comfort at times.
Merriment’s full-length debut, Sway, is easy enough to like on the surface. nothing about it is revolutionary, but Christie can be an imaginative songwriter just like her sisters can, and her songs are of a fairly consistent quality even if only a small handful stand out as amazing. Nothing on this record is bad… it’s just that I get the nagging sense I’ve heard most of it before. I think what’s most puzzling about it is figuring out who exactly was involved in making it. Merriment is a duo, yet there are two guys pictured with Christie on the cover, and it isn’t clear who the other dude is. (I bought the album digitally after not being able to find a physical copy, and I can’t find credits for the album anywhere online.) Perhaps it’s Eisley bassist Garron DuPree? He apparently contributed bass and a string arrangement on a few tracks, and I have the sneaking suspicion that at least one “big sis” helped out on backup vocals – either that, or Christie is double-tracked much of the time, because a lot of the vocals have that same sisterly vibe to them. I’m normally a huge fan of layered vocals, so I’m not criticizing the overall sound; I’m just saying it seems a bit odd considering its origins as a solo project. Every once in a blue moon there’s a unique enough song that makes me think, “Eisley wouldn’t have come up with this one”, but then they veer right back into familiar territory. It’s enough to make the record start to get monotonous over the course of 12 tracks, but I guess I’ve found enough highlights to keep me coming back to it. I thought Sway was merely an average record living in a better band’s shadow at first, but now that I’ve had half a year or so for it to settle in, I think there’s some real potential there, if only Christie would make a little more effort to find her own voice in the future. (Or at least to work with some musicians and vocalists she’s not related to.)
1. Take Heart
You know how literally every single Eisley album starts off immediately with vocals instead of an instrumental intro? (At least if you don’t count the murky sound effects at the beginning of Currents.) This song does exactly that. The weird part is, it sounds like the sort of relaxed ballad that would normally fit much deeper in an album. I suppose when most of your material is slow to mid-tempo, there ain’t much you can to do avoid this dilemma. Still, it’s not the most impressive way to start things off. The song is certainly heartfelt, finding a woman negotiating with a lover she can’t quite see eye to eye with, asking him for just one more day apart to let time decide if there’s still something there. Just about everything here, from the cautious march of the drums, to the small but sweet backing vocals, to the modest handclaps, seems like it was designed to be unobtrusive. It’s cute, but it takes a lot of the potential for emotional resonance out of the song. And I could swear that the vocal fade-out at the end is just like the one from Eisley’s “Millstone”, just on a smaller scale.
2. Tremendous Love
This is one of those rare songs whose title sums up exactly how I feel about it. Due to it having a similar pace and structure to the rest of the album, I didn’t notice it at first. Its simple acoustic guitar strumming and programmed drums give it the quality of an unfinished demo at first, but then a few of Christie’s unexpected melodic twists and turns begin to set in, and the bass starts to get deeper and more ominous, and I start to realize there’s something deeper lurking beneath the surface of what might otherwise be another cutesy love song about two lovers trying to work things out. The chorus is intimate, and yet infinitely singable, simply stating “Why can’t the other person say what the other person wants to hear?/Don’t you know what I can’t say is that I was wrong.” You can feel the tension in Christie’s voice as the melody dips down into despair and then lifts itself right back out again. And then things get hauntingly weird in the bridge, which has no words, just a bit of melodic wailing as the eerie bass and sound effects reach the peak of their intensity. When I was going through my list of favorite songs of the year 2014 and this one landed in my top ten, I was quite surprised to realize how over the moon I was for this one, despite feeling so-so about most of the album it came from.
Now with this song, I knew it was love at first sight. (First sound? I’m bad about mixing my metaphors.) I’ll straight-up admit that this was despite the fact that it so obviously reminded me of a few of my favorite acoustic Eisley songs like “Combinations” or “Just Like We Do”. Those are drop-dead gorgeous songs, and this one, with its simple finger-picking pattern and its pastoral vibe, falls snugly into that category as well. This is where carefully building up a sparse but pretty song pays off in huge dividends for Merriment, as there isn’t much else here but some modest strings, a bit of snare drum that helps to keep the song moving along at an agreeable pace, and Christie’s lovely vocal harmonies. This is one of those songs where I suspect one or two sisters may have pitched in to back her up, but if I’m wrong and she simply multi-tracked herself in the studio… actually, in this case, I don’t care either way. I can hear her longing to one day take that solemn vow and walk down the aisle with her special someone, and it’s all so sweet and innocent and hopelessly devoted that it just makes me want to cry happy tears for her.
4. Now I’m Silver
The cautious, even-keeled pace of this song works in its favor despite some elements of it being things I’d consider “sluggish” in other songs. I have a hard time figuring out exactly what appeals to me about the hazy, only-subtly-changing electric guitar chords that drive this song, or the mannered drums and the oh-so-politely-placed handclaps that seem to have the opposite effect from how you’d expect drums and handclaps to influence a song. The results are admirably pretty despite being such a defiant slow march, and perhaps it’s fitting, considering the lyrics that appear to be about a grey-haired old woman, not quite the catch she was back in her younger days, reminiscing and still quite hopeful that she will be reunited with her long-lost soulmate. There’s some lovely piano in the bridge that helps to let a little sunlight into the song, though the primary emphasis is on the vocal harmonies here, and I run the risk of redundancy in pointing out that they are quite lovely.
So far this song, with its more poppy rhythm and confident guitar strumming, is the most up-tempo thing on the album. Despite that, it never really stood out to me much. I can’t pinpoint anything horribly wrong with it. It stars off with the intriguing premise of retracing a dead lover’s steps and goes on to make some comments on the passage of time and the heartache experienced in trying to get over that person. Perhaps the big mistake here is in taking the specific lyrics the song started with and regressing to the generic by the time the chorus rolls around. “And I just had to tell you I tried and tried/But time goes by and now I hold my tears inside.” That just seems like too one-size-fits-all of a conclusion considering where the song began.
6. Two Worlds
More of a fantastical lyrical approach is taken on this brisk, acoustic song, which is a cute little finger-picked waltz that I probably should have given more credit to the first several times I listened to it. It was sort of easy back then to gloss over it and not really notice much going on, but now I really like it. Christie’s opening lyrics are an intriguing enough hook: “So now we’re caught between two worlds/And you and I become the door”, and while the song doesn’t really elaborate much on how those two worlds are different or irreconcilable with each other, the chorus sounds like something out of a fascinatingly dark fairy tale: “There was a blinding falcon of trickery/And a flame was seen on a sparrow’s wing/And all my darkest memories were seen/Unraveling a fear inside of me.”
The record reaches its nadir of generic-ness with this song, which has little to its rhythm or its melody or its lyrics to make me care much about it. Maybe there’s a teeny bit of country twang that you can barely hear in the muted slide guitar (every now and then the DuPrees’ Texas roots poke up through the ground, I guess). Maybe the chorus is a vaguely pleasant thing to sing along to. But the songwriting is sloppy, starting out like it was the first thing a teenager wrote down with the aid of her rhyming dictionary (“Maybe you could be some part of what I need/And maybe you would see there’s not much more to me”), and working its way into a clumsy metaphor about how two people are immature and other folks don’t think they really belong together, but they’ll survive on TWUE WUV! as their two hearts beat together in time. (Why do they “Beat, beat on three?” Is there some musician-speak here that I’m just not smart enough to understand? Because if your heart is beating in patterns of three, you should probably visit your nearest ER.)
Not really any more specific or poignant, but at least a bit wiser on the topic of falling in love and then staying there, is this song, which is really quite beautifully textured. Lost in the midst of so many other sappy love songs, I hadn’t really caught on to this one at first, but thanks to the golden textures of the softly strummed electric guitar and the delicate plucking of a banjo, this one has turned out to be a highlight. If the banjo is an instrument that you still fear after all these years, be aware that it’s more of a texture than a lead instrument here – it’s about as far from bluegrass and as close to harmless indie pop as the instrument can possibly get. The main ingredient here is once again Christie and her vocal doppelgangers, sweetly ooh-ing and oh-ing their way through a song that that feels like a nice comfy chair you can sink into and read a good book for the afternoon. Nothing revolutionary happens here, and a few minutes in I’m thinking it needs a little something to shake it up like “Tremendous Love” did in its bridge. But it’s still one of the album’s highlights.
9. Nothing to Lose
The next two songs stand in sharp contrast to the handful that came before it, since those were mostly about two people wanting to be together or trying to find a way to stay together, and these two are very much break-up songs, both from the point of view of the woman initiating the breakup, apparently because the guy is a bit of a loser. This is the only up-tempo track to be found in the back half of the album, which gives the song a bit of levity as she tells the guy she’s through with waiting around for him, and that she had lost herself in the process of trying to please him. The song isn’t about giving him a second chance – it’s about giving herself one after realizing she’s given him too many. Mood-wise, it’s somewhat similar to one of Eisley’s folksier pop songs such as “Ten Cent Blues”.
10. Down By the Creek
I try not to judge songs solely based on their tempo. There’s a lot of beauty to be found in slower songs that aren’t trying as hard to hook you with fast-fingered instrumental wizardry or catchy beats, at least when there’s enough texture and variance in those slow songs to keep them from all mushing together in the listener’s mind. This one definitely stands out despite its mid-tempo pace because it’s such a delightfully phrased send-off to a guy whose immaturity and other issues she just plain can’t deal with any more. She’s heard his sob stories about how he’s living “down by the creek” (which causes my mind to insert the phrase “In a van down by the river!” just for grins), and she’s sorry for his little sad sack situation, but she’s through with his manipulative behavior and his pathetic promises of turning over a new leaf. The melody and especially the cheery whistling between the verse and chorus seem to beg for a bouncier arrangement, because it almost sounds like a taunt. I’m used to gleeful defiance when I hear this sort of song. Making it slow and kind of sad-sounding just gives it a sympathetic mood, when the lyrics are anything but. Lots of songs on this record needed to be slow in order to set the right mood, but this just plain isn’t one of ’em.
11. Right Again
This is by far the darkest-sounding song on an album which, under most circumstances, I wouldn’t consider “dark” at all. The tense, minor-key acoustic strumming, the slow drums that seem to be stumbling through a dimly lit room, the murky string arrangement, the nervous moaning of the electric guitar, and that same sort of banjo plucking from “Spill” in a completely different context all come together to make a song that… well actually, now that I think about it, has the same sort of muted angst to it as “The Night Comes”, the penultimate track on Eisley’s Currents. And if I’m going to relentlessly compare Merriment to their older counterparts, then I should rightfully admit that in this one case, Merriment has the better song of the two being compared.
Speaking of comparisons to songs on Currents, this one is pretty much “Shelter”, the teary-eyed, happy little love song that closed out that album. It’s even got a Jeremy Larson string arrangement, for crying out loud. And that’s normally the sort of thing that really gets me going, especially when it’s paired with such an adoring, confessional lyric as this one, with a woman humbly admitting to all of her faults but asking to be loved, warts and all, because her heart is just KA-RAZY for his. It’s a nice sentiment. I just feel like I’ve traveled this musical road way too many times as the chorus begins to gently loop back on itself and the album winds to a close.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Take Heart $.50
Tremendous Love $2
Now I’m Silver $1.25
Two Worlds $1.25
Nothing to Lose $1
Down By the Creek $.75
Right Again $1.25
Christie DuPree: Lead vocals
Collin DuPree: Guitars
Other members of the DuPree family: Lots of other stuff, allegedly.
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: