Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Weird Conundrum Of Not Liking The Album Motherland, But Being Blown Away By The Songs . . .

The Good: Some decent lyrics, Moments of vocals
The Bad: Most of the instrumentals, Arrangement
The Basics: In a razor decision, the lyrics on Motherland's best songs push the album into being just worthy of a "recommend."

Every now and then, I encounter a truly odd set of circumstances, especially when reviewing music. For example, I was not especially taken with the Metro Station debut album (reviewed here!), yet I find myself humming many of the songs from that album these days. Similarly, having gotten my hands on the Natalie Merchant album Motherland, I find I'm not a big fan of it. But I do seem to like a number of the songs.

The problem is, I've begun work on a television series. I am developing a television series from the bottom up and I have some great ideas about characters and I've plotted out the entire one hundred episode series. There are at least three songs on Motherland that from the first moment I heard the album, I said, "It would be awesome to play this song with that character . . ." and "Oh, if that was playing when she does that, it would completely sell the moment!" So I am able to acknowledge that my current interest and appreciation of Motherland is for my own selfish purposes and when I found myself calling my co-creator and co-exec and telling her, "listen to these songs and see what you could do for covering them" (she's in line to compose the music for the series). And truth be told, some of the tracks on Motherland would be great with her voice and sensibility either as pure covers or with more . . . electric renditions. That said, I know right now that the ultimate fate of this album in my hands is coming down to the toss of a coin; it's a very average and melancholy album, evoking more of an air of mediocrity than actual mood.

With twelve tracks, clocking in at 58:22, Motherland is very much the product of Natalie Merchant. Merchant wrote all of the songs and she provides the primary vocals on all of the tracks. As well, she plays piano on two tracks and the Rhodes piano on another one. She takes a co-producing credit as well. In other words, this does seem to be very much the work of singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant. And, truth be told, it sounds like many of the other works by Merchant and that is part of the problem. There is something to be said for consistency, but in the realm of music, I think there is more to be said for growth, ambition and continued expansion of ability and repertoire.

Perhaps this is why Merchant has not had as much success in recent years as she did when she first went solo. Perhaps I am not the only one who wants more from the artist.

That said, the standout aspect of the album are the lyrics on several of the songs. Outside an unfortunate tendency to make the song titles the same as the obvious line of the song (opening the album with "The House Is On Fire" which has the title as the first - and recurring - line sets a pretty bad tone from the outset), Merchant does manage to show some creativity and panache in her writing on Motherland. She beautifully describes the melancholy of moving with the album's title track when she writes and sings, "Where in hell can you go far from the things that you know, far from the sprawl of the concrete that keeps crawling its way about 1,000 miles a day? Take one last look behind, commit this to memory and mind. Don't miss this wasteland, this terrible place. When you leave keep your heart off your sleeve" (“Motherland”). Singing about the act of leaving a place - without getting into love - is not common in pop-rock songs, yet Merchant fearlessly makes it her subject and she does that well.

Similarly, she has a folk-rock sense of storytelling on several of her tracks, like "Build A Levee." She develops a story of temptation and warning with lines like "When I was just a little girl my mamma said to me, 'Beware of the devil my child in the dark rocky places he'll keep. Beware of the devil my child. Beware of his charming ways. You'll fall under an evil spell just looking at his beautiful face" ("Build A Levee"). She then makes a remarkably literary comparison to temptation and flood waters, describing the surge of emotion much like what we need protective water barriers for. It is a clever comparison and she develops it quite well. It is truly a musical story with a conflict and characters and a wonderful Modernist ending.

But it is her use of irony in "Golden Boy" that made me keep spinning this album after the usual eight listens I give a c.d. I am reviewing for this site. She makes a pretty rocking tune out of lines like, "Top of the fold, toast of the town, everybody stops when you come around. They hold their breath for you. Heroes are born, idols are made. We're all fools for this factory fame and you've got a brand new face . . . Meteor ride from obscurity, all it took was a killing spree and the whole world was lying at your feet" ("Golden Boy"). She paints the picture of a beautiful, normal character who everyone might adore and wish to emulate, then undercuts it beautifully by exposing the character's flaws. It is vicious and wonderful and more clever than most songs ever get.

The problem here is that Merchant's vocals do not present the songs in ways that are even remotely interesting. While the songs have different tempos by the instrumentals, her vocals are almost entirely monotone within the mid to lower range vocals that she is known for. She has a smoky voice that can carry a strangely innocent tone to it when she wishes it to (like on the lost sections of Motherland and when she goes higher on the annoyingly repetitive "Henry Darger"), but for the most part, she is safe in her range.

Vocally, one song sounds like the next more or less. She is distinctive, but we have heard her brand of vocals before . . . from her. This is nothing new, nothing that bends our ears in a way they have not already been bent. As a result, there is a very familiar sense to almost every track on the album and I find that problematic. Over the years from when she went solo, one expected some sense of development. While artists like Annie Lennox might go off in directions that do not thrill me, I can recognize the changes album to album and be impressed by her experimentalism. Merchant on Motherland seems determined to stay within her niche.

In fact, the only time the vocals do anything truly distinctive is in the climax to "Tell Yourself." After listening to Merchant mumble through "Saint Judas," it is refreshing to hear the kicker line to "Tell Yourself," sung crystal clear. Merchant gets points again for irony of reducing the self-absorbed and insecure narrator of "Tell Yourself" in the final line to a child. It works and were it not for her presentation of it, it might have fallen flat like many of the other songs.

That said, what does fall flat are the instrumentals. The instumentals on Motherland are universally smoky jazz-like pop songs. There is a quiet, slow sense to every song and it is less than what we have heard from Merchant before. It is not overproduced, at least, but it is monolithic and as a result, the album holds up less well over multiple listens than one suspects Merchant would like it to. There is nothing that catches the ear because songs sound alike. "Saint Judas" bleeds into "Put The Law On You" and while there is a slight building in tempo over "Build A Levee" and "Golden Boy," that sense of momentum is killed by "Henry Darger."

Moreover, this is a piano and acoustic guitar-driven album and track by track that quickly becomes more sleepy than stylish, making for a listening experience that is surprisingly dull.

With that, I flip my quarter and . . . Motherland gets a terribly weak "recommend." The lyrics and sound of the few memorable tracks - not all of which appear on either version of her "Retrospective" album - are enough to give it a few spins, but it's a hard sell to shell out money for.

The best track is "Golden Boy," the low point is the unmemorably poppy "Just Can't Last."

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.

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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