Album Review: 'Natalie Merchant'

Though she's been a popular singer since the '80s, Natalie Merchant has often worn the air of one who finds pop stardom distasteful. On her new self-titled LP, she dredges that tension to the fore.

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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")

10,000 MANIACS: (Singing) I'm tired of the excuses everybody uses. He's your kid. Do as you see fit. But get this through that I don't approve of what you did to your own flesh and blood.

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")

NATALIE MERCHANT: (Singing) You know the sweetest wine, it's a witches' brew, pours like honey down and then burns a hole in you. Yeah, you may think you're done but you're never through, spitting out the bitterness to get the little sweetness you do. And you don't know how to leave and you don't know where to fly. And you've got a lot of things to lose...

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")

MERCHANT: (Singing) Oh, it's no secret, you know my every weakness. Oh, haven't the strength now. Not enough to waste tonight. Oh, spark the fire. Tinder blocks of desire. Oh, Lord, have mercy. The first to feel tonight.

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")

MERCHANT: (Singing) But it's so hard movin' on without you. Every mornin' wakin' in a fever where I'm shakin'. My heart starts pounding. Muddy water all around me...

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")

MERCHANT: (Singing) Go down, go down, Moses. Go down, Moses. Go down to the city of New Orleans.

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