First Appeared at The Music Box, February 2002, Volume 9, #2
Written by John Metzger
Forget everything you presume to know about Natalie Merchant. And please don't judge her latest release based solely upon its first single Just Can't Last. Granted, the tune does warrant comparisons to Merchant's past hits, and on first glance, it appears to mine much of the same territory as just about every single since she began her solo career. However, taken within the context of Motherland — the third outing by the former 10,000 Maniacs' vocalist — the song truly comes into its own, revealing a collection of much richer material.
But let's start at the beginning. Motherland greets the listener with Merchant's most daring song to date — the Middle Eastern-tinged This House is on Fire. In one fell swoop, she dispels her image as an AAA-format crooner when a swirling maelstrom of oud, violin, viola, and alto flute collides with echo-laden vocals over an intoxicatingly hypnotic rhythm. Through the song, she beckons her audience to join her on a journey of reflection on America and its place in the world. "I've been sitting here for the longest time reading all the warning and the danger signs," she sings only to add, "I don't have the gift of prophesy...." Or does she? Two days after the recording for Motherland was completed, the dreadful attack on America took place.
For certain, social commentary isn't a new direction for Merchant. It's one she explored quite frequently with 10,000 Maniacs, but toned down considerably on each of her first two solo outings. With Motherland, Merchant makes a welcome return to more meaningful musings, and it seems she has quite a lot on her mind. Everything from urban sprawl (Motherland) to southern-bred racism (Saint Judas), from media-fed violence (Golden Boy) to teen anorexia (Tell Yourself) is given its due. And, as matched with Merchant's adventurous arrangements — which cross through everything from blues to bluegrass and include guest appearances by Van Dyke Parks, Mavis Staples, and Greg Leisz — Motherland yields a magnificent set of material that grows more endearing with each listen.
Of Further Interest...
Motherland is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2002 The Music Box