Album Review: 'Natalie Merchant'

May 7, 2014
Originally published on June 10, 2014 7:59 am
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Natalie Merchant is back. Merchant's top singing career that spans decades. In the '80s, she fronted the misleadingly-named folk-rock band 10,000 Maniacs. In the '90s, she became a solo success and co-headlined the high-profile Lilith Faire tour. It focused on women musicians. And then in 2001, she released an album called "Motherland." In the aughts, she's been raising a child and rethinking her approach to music.

Well, now comes a brand new LP simply called "Natalie Merchant," and critic Will Hermes has a review.

WILL HERMES, BYLINE: One of the things I've always loved about Natalie Merchant is a subdued yet unmistakable air of a woman who finds pop stardom rather distasteful. That tension, and her unusual voice, made her a compelling rock front-woman back in the '80s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S THE MATTER HERE")

HERMES: I missed that tension in her early solo work, which struck me as a bit genteel. But lately, she's been digging into folk tradition and orchestral music, which suits her voice. And you can hear both influences on her latest album, which she produced herself and is clearly a pop record, albeit in a 20th century sense of the word.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LADYBIRD")

HERMES: The themes here are familiar, often involving characters, and women in particular, struggling in a culture where odds are stacked against them. But there's also a refreshing playfulness. You can hear it on the song "Black Sheep," which gets some of its Eastern European folk flavor from clarinetist Steve Elson.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK SHEEP")

HERMES: Best of all, this record gives full rein to Natalie Merchant's voice, which is stronger than ever, especially in her magnificent lower register. And that animating tension between abandon and composure seems to be back, too - although now, the singer seems to have mastered it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GO DOWN MOSES")

SIEGEL: We're listening to Natalie Merchant's self-titled LP. Will Hermes is author of the book "Love Goes To Buildings On Fire."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GO DOWN MOSES")

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.