People have been expecting big things from Natalie Merchant. While her latest release, Motherland, may not make many "Best of" lists for 2001, it most definitely made some "Most Anticipated" lists prior to its November release. On the heels of an American Folk Music tour and out of a collaboration with renowned roots-rock producer T-Bone Burnett ( O Brother Where Art Thou? ) comes Merchant's fourth post 10,000 Maniacs outingthe result being a record that, while more adventurous than either of its studio predecesors ( Tigerlily and Ophelia ), is perhaps too ambitious for its own good.
Her recent focus on American roots music prompted the expectation that Merchant would make a folk record, pure and simple. And given her success with the folk-inspired pop of 10,000 Maniacs, that would have made sense. But while there are no doubt hints of a folk sensibility on Motherland, there is also a myriad of other stylistic elements that overwhelm the effort, baring what is ultimately a rather underwhelming collection of songs.
Branching out stylistically is a bold endeavor under any circumstances. And while the attempt itself may be courageous, the reality is that it may not be victorious at the same time. Such is the case with Motherland, wherein Merchant offers a sampling of nearly every genre on the musical spectrum. The album opener, “This House is on Fire” possesses a Middle Eastern flavor. The lyrically insubstantial, albeit catchy “Just Can‘t Last” is essentially bubblegum pop. And the album finale, “I’m Not Gonna Beg” is a stab at soul, Aretha-style. However, it is not the mere variety that keeps Motherland from working. But rather it is the fact that Merchant is too temperamental, too all-over-the-place to really give any one genre the needed refinement.
To say that Motherland is too far-reaching in its aim is not to say that it is completely devoid of sublime moments. Merchant’s token velvety alto is present in all of its gloryshe even manages a surprisingly good rendition of the blues-tinged “Put the Law on You.” However, the album’s two gems are clearly the banjo-induced title track and the buzzy, guitar-whirling “Golden Boy,” both revealing not only Merchant’s folk roots but also her lyrical prowess.
In the end Merchant may scorn the old adage “Stick to what you know,” saying that it stifles her abundant creativity. But truth be told, she is most triumphant when she lingers close to home. Ironically, Motherland is not home this time around.
1. This House Is On Fire, 2. Motherland, 3. Saint Judas, 4. Put The Law On You, 5. Build A Levee, 6. Golden Boy, 7. The Ballad Of Henry Darger, 8. The Worst Thing, 9. Tell Yourself,10. Just Can't Last, 11. Not In This Life, 12. I'm Not Gonna Beg
Van Dyke Parks & Guy Klucevsek - Accordion; Matt Chamberlain - Percussion, Drums; Bob Glaub & Graham Maby - Bass; Greg Leisz - Guitar (Acoustic), Banjo, Mandolin, Guitar (12 String); Bass Natalie Merchant - Piano, Vocals; Mavis Staples - Vocals; Patrick Warren - Chamberlain, Organ (Pump); Erik Della Penna - Banjo, Guitar (Electric), Oud, Guitar (Classical), Bazouki, Lap Steel Guitar.
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