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Live review: Daniel Merriweather at the Troubadour

January 21, 2010 | 12:57 pm

The young Australian wanders away from the carefully produced retro soul of 'Love & War' for improvised flights of soul-funk fancy.

MERRIWEATHER_1

The only thing more memorable than Daniel Merriweather's vocals Wednesday night at the Troubadour was the face he kept making while delivering them. Wonderfully expressive, this guy: eyes squeezed shut, cheeks bunched up, mouth moved pretty much entirely to the left side of his head. Picture a huskier version of Mr. Schuester from "Glee" crossed with one of those babies tasting a lemon on YouTube.

Merriweather's major-label debut, "Love & War," doesn't set you up for facial acrobatics. Out since last summer in England and due in stores here Feb. 23, it's a handsomely crafted retro-soul affair on which the young Australian's singing rarely breaks out of the production, most of which was handled by Mark Ronson, whose work on Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black" appears to have served as a blueprint.

Purposely or not, the music presents Merriweather's voice as just one part of an intricate mixture of sound, no more important than the horns or strings or old-school hip-hop beats. In your mind's eye you imagine people laboring in the studio rather than throwing down onstage.

That's utterly typical of modern pop, of course, and often for the better. (Who wants to see Ke$ha sitting on a stool, strumming her pain with her fingers?) Yet on Wednesday, Merriweather seemed to stake his claim on an older tradition, one that prizes the physical fact of singing.

MERRIWEATHER_2 Nattily attired in a jacket, tie and form-fitting trousers, he spent a considerable portion of his hourlong set departing from the precise arrangements on "Love & War," leading his solid four-piece band in apparently improvised flights of soul-funk fancy.

As if to prove the point, the concert's most impressive performances didn't even come from Merriweather's album. In a rowdy rendition of "You Don't Know What Love Is" by the White Stripes, the singer dug deep into his bag of blues, while he treated a cover of Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed" as an opportunity to demonstrate all the steps that separate a croon from a growl.

Merriweather also sang the Smiths' "Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before," a Ronson-produced version of which served as Merriweather's first commercial hit in 2007. Perhaps as a result of overuse, though, "Stop Me" felt somewhat canned, a series of stylish gestures that never ended up pointing anywhere.

In fact, for all his vocal power and interpretive zeal, Merriweather didn't actually offer much of anything about who he is (or isn't) at the Troubadour. "Love & War" emphasizes his taste in decoration; Wednesday's show made it clear that he's not a product of Pro Tools. But that leaves an awful lot of blank canvas: What makes him sing these songs? To whom are they addressed? And how did he learn to do that thing with his mouth?

Without answers to those questions, Merriweather might survive the transition from studio to stage. From stage to star will prove more difficult.

--Mikael Wood

Photo credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angels Times

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