Review: Merce Lemon – “Moonth”

There’s a clear line between Moonth, the new LP from Pittsburgh singer-songwriter Merce Lemon, and Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville, which hit streets and stereos more than a generation ago. Both records are documents of strong-willed women coming to terms with themselves and their desires in the musical and romantic landscapes that surround and sometimes seek to obscure them. Both records use the little details, the forlorn asides of everyday love and relationships, to great didactic ends. But, despite some glaring similarities – the casually strummed, undistorted guitar; the captivating female voice; the sparse accompaniment; even, to some degree, the production details – it may be more interesting to trace what distinguishes them.

While Phair, as we all know, often projected a playful and lust-ridden bravado (“I want to be your blow job queen,” she cooed on “Flower”), Lemon excels in a more innocent, twee brand of Romanticism a la Shay Park. Lemon uses careful coos and the occasional wavering of her voice to sell the delivery, and she gets to the heart of the matter singing about the smell of chili packets surfacing through someone’s skin, a brittle clavicle, a falling disco ball. There are bits of poignancy (“I’ll call it love when you mean what you say,” she deadpans on the stand-out “Moon Shots”) but Lemon does better when she merely infers the grander narratives. You’d never expect her to sing a Phair missive like “I want to fuck you like a dog.

That leads one, of course, to the matter of setting and fidelity. Lemon, like many aspiring indie-folk songsmiths, launched her career with self-recorded EPs – Ideal for a Light Flow with Your Body (2017) and Girls Who Jump In (2018) – whose home-recorded and decidedly low-fi aesthetic gave her work a startling immediacy. There was an unspoken charm to the bumps and cracks and tape hiss of it all. Moonth, on the other hand, is definitively a studio affair, tracked at Pittsburgh’s Mr. Small’s, Lemon’s vocals smoothed over with careful multitracking and reverb, and her trebly guitar strumming buttressed by a second lead (played, and we’ll get to this later, by her father) and sometimes plucky pop bass. (There even are occasional touches of cello.) The immediacy, for the most part, remains.

Moonth is an inviting listen from top to bottom, offering a musical language as unifying as the mellow gray tones of the album’s cover. But, the more you pick apart the record, the more it shines, with tracks like the aforementioned “Moon Shots,” with its hints of a doo-wop bounce; the lilting rollick of “Baby;” or the forceful ballad “Tiny Man” all registering far beyond their slots in the album sequence.

The appearance of Lemon’s father, Greg Pierce, on guitar shows a familial bond and a sense of warmth, sure, but Lemon does not explore the underbelly of the relationship to great, tangled ends. Pierce ends up as another piece of a larger puzzle Lemon is working over and of which she’s trying to make bigger sense. Lemon, for sure, is a force on the record–there’s a reason her name‘s on the spine. With Moonth, it’s refreshing to hear an ascending musician make so seamless a transition from home-recording to the studio – all, like Phair, while keeping her bedroom pop in mind. — Justin Vellucci, Spectrum Culture, Aug. 11, 2020

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