The Good: Lyrics, Richness of musical accompaniment, Moments of voice, Themes
The Bad: Somewhat repetitive vocal sound, Takes a few listens to grow on the listener.
The Basics: A good debut with some solid songs and a few musical missteps makes for a worthwhile outing for Natalie Merchant that most will want to pick up!
Natalie Merchant was always one of those artists whose work I would hear on the radio and think "I should look into her music more closely. She seems like someone I might like." Despite having that sentiment and generally enjoying three of the tracks on her solo debut, I had never picked up, nor listened to, Tigerlily before last week. Having listened to it now eight times, I find myself in a rather interesting position.
When I picked up Tigerlily, I was happy because I knew three of the tracks before my first listen: "Wonder," "Carnival," and "Jealousy." I remember being in college at Binghamton, listening to "Jealousy" on the radio and thinking how great it was. Unfortunately, the acoustic version that I heard for years on the radio is not the same was this album's version of it. Despite my familiarity and appreciation of three of the tracks, as the album goes into the ninth listen, as I write this, the best musical moments on the album truly are some of the non-single tracks.
With eleven songs clocking out at 52:15, Tigerlily is a true expression of Natalie Merchant's musical vision. While she does not receive any form of production credit on the album, all of the songs are written by Merchant - both the lyrics and the music. Moreover, she provides the primary vocals for all of the songs, as well as the piano, organ and vibraphone on various tracks. This does appear to be a very true representation of both her message and the execution of that message.
Lyrically, Tigerlily is easily well ahead of most pop-rock albums. Merchant is well known for lines that are more complicated, that are set on saying something. Her known hits include above average sentiments like "I've walked these streets / in a spectacle of wealth & poverty / in the diamond markets / the scarlet welcome carpet / that they just rolled out for me. / I've walked these streets / in the mad house asylum / they can be / Where a wild eyed misfit profit / on a traffic island stopped / And he raved of saving me" ("Carnival"). She has a rich sense of diction and imagery that she utilizes and she is not afraid of long lines filled with descriptive words to tell her musical stories.
Similarly, she is not afraid of frank and openly emotive lines, like "I can't believe / I've lost the very best of me / You were the love / For certain of my life / For 50 years simply my beloved wife / With another love I'll never lye again / It's you I can't deny / It's you I can't defy / A depth so deep / Into my grief . . ." ("Beloved Wife"). Merchant expresses a strong sense of loneliness and abandonment on various tracks like "Beloved Wife," "Jealousy," "I May Know The Word," and "Seven Years." The album is painted in broad strokes of misery and it is surprising how the radio-friendly tracks largely neglect the power of these tracks on the album to make something commercially successful.
The thing is, if one were purchasing Tigerlily based on the tracks "Carnival" or "Wonder," they would be in for a true rude awakening when it came time to actually listen to the entire work. Indeed, the more common type of lyric would be something like, "I may know the word / but not say it / this may be the time / but I might waste it / this may be the hour / something move me / someone prove me wrong / before night comes with indifference" ("I May Know The Word"), where the listener is compelled to make their own sense of order to the universe as opposed to have it put in context by the singer songwriter, as she does on something like "Wonderful."
Lyrically, Tigerlily is a strong album with Natalie Merchant illustrating that without any co-writers, she has something to say and the vision and ability to say it. She might have only melancholy things to say, but given that, she is emotive and expressive in a way few artists choose to be at the onset of their career. Merchant makes it work, though.
Part of the way she makes it work is that she knows exactly how she wants to perform the lyrics she is writing. As a singer-songwriter, her advantage is she knows the strengths and weaknesses of the performer she is writing for. As a result, Merchant keeps this album firmly rooted within the alto and tenor vocal range that she performs in. There are no surprises here, nothing that challenges much of that range. Instead, Merchant debuts with a strong sense of vocal prowess and tracks like "River" and "Carnival," she lets loose with volume and force as opposed to testing the tonal range she sings in. As a result, she does have a strong sound that is easily likened to Grace Slick.
Anyone who likes a decent mid-range female vocalist will likely enjoy Natalie Merchant's singing. The problematic aspect is not her range or even her articulation - she is singing her own songs, so she does seem to have the complex lines tailored to her own presentation of them, putting forth most of them in clear ways - but rather how the voice is produced over. The refrain of "Carnival," for example, has just enough reverb and backing to be a little more complex as the song progresses, making some of the last lines a little less clear than some of the earlier ones.
This is a complaint that borders more on the music, though, as the vocals are blended into the electric guitars and drum rhythms, which further obscures the vocals. While much of the album does appear to be legitimately the choices - music and lyrics - of Merchant, one wonders how much of the producer's choices she questioned. After all, "Carnival" and "Where I Go" both contain elements where Merchant's voice becomes subjugated to the instrumentals or production elements.
The worst musical moment actually comes on the song that was my favorite coming into my first listen to this work. I was spoiled, it turns out, by the station in Binghamton. In Binghamton, they exclusively played an acoustic version of "Jealousy" that was absolutely amazing. The musical accompaniment went slower and lower, Merchant's vocals were clearer and more sorrowful, creating the wrenching sense of what jealousy was. In that version, there is an emotional resonance that clearly illustrates that Merchant understands the concept of what jealousy is and how it feels. She shows with her vocals and musical accompaniment what the lyrics tell. Unfortunately, on the Tigerlily presentation, the song is an up-tempo pop-rock song that prioritizes the drums and instrumentals, illustrating no sense whatsoever of what the feeling the lines are expressing truly is about. It is that kind of disappointment that I was not prepared for when I sat down and started listening to Natalie Merchant.
But it is not enough to keep me away from this album. This is a solid album and while there came a reversal - a time when listening to this album when I turned away from the familiar radio-overplayed tracks to fully embrace some of the non-single tracks as superior to them - there was never a moment (still isn't) where I did not find myself enjoying the album. What limitations there are might well be written off to debut jitters.
Anyone who likes pop-rock or a strong feminine voice will find Tigerlily worthwhile and worth adding to their permanent collection. The best track is "Beloved Wife" (though it's a close call with the album closer "Seven Years") and the low point is the well-written but poorly presented "Jealousy" (which should have been her easy grand slam single).
For other works that include Natalie Merchant, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Our Time In Eden - 10,000 Maniacs
In My Tribe - 10,000 Maniacs
For other music reviews, check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing of them!
© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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