Sunday, April 18, 2010

Kat's Korner: The return of Natalie Merchant

Kat: Natalie Merchant is never better than when she's singing, "For whatever we lose (like a you or a me), it's always ourselves we find in the sea." The couplet is from "maggie and milly and molly and may" off her new album, her first in seven years, Leave Your Sleep. This double disc, twenty-six track album is ambitious in more than just sheer volume.

Natalie Merchant Leave Your Sleep

But before we get to that, some disclosures. Big 10,000 Maniacs fan. Hard to believe today when airplay seems to vanish as soon as pubic hair sprouts but, once upon a time, in the eighties, you could listen for hours and hours and hear nothing but over-40s. Some were worthy. Tina Turner, for example, was worthy in the mid-eighties. Some were attempting to ride Miami Vice (a bad TV cop show) to renewed fame. So you got the middle aged men with the Don Johnson stubble and rock-lite tunes. Do I need to name them or do we know who I'm talking about? No one ever needed to hear "You Belong To The City" even once, okay?

Back then, especially before Janet Jackson and the Beastie Boys shook things up, if you wanted to hear music, you pretty much had to listen to college radio. It was there that you'd hear 10,000 Maniacs and, the other big rock group, REM. You'd hear other acts as well but those two groups were the big dogs of college radio.

Both would eventually cross-over to other radio formats and do well there -- REM would eventually do amazingly well only to then flame out. But when Dona asked me if I could give Leave Your Sleep a listen and maybe consider reviewing it, I said sure and mainly because I see 10,000 Maniacs and especially Natalie Merchant being written out of the history of those times. It's not surprising. It's how women are disappeared from history over and over again.

Natalie was one woman in a group of boys and that not only describes 10,000 Maniacs, it also describes Natalie on college radio back then. Suzanne Vega and a few others would get nice play but in terms of the superstars of college radio back then, it was Natalie and it was REM and it was Husker Du and it was the Replacements and it was . . . On and on and on.

Though I was a big 10,000 Maniacs fan and think they really made some lasting albums and some lasting songs, I've been less of a solo Natalie Merchant fan. That's in part because she went from a rock setting to musical style that was more suited to adult contemporary and also because, honestly, I'm not blown away by her lyrics.

That wasn't a problem when she was with the band because she generally co-wrote songs. Then she went solo and there's been little collaboration. The music's been gorgeous but many of the songs seemed subpar to me due to their lyrics. And typing that will no doubt get burned at the stake during the next Lilith Fair tour but it is how I feel and I'm far from alone on that.

Now if you don't know Natalie or you just know the hits, you may be thinking back to that opening couplet right about now. If so, you may say, "Well I think that was wonderful." I would agree with you. In fact, most people would agree with you.

That's because she didn't write those lines, e.e. cummings wrote those lines. For Leave Your Sleep, Natalie's concentrated on her writing strength: music. She's taken various poems from the 19th and 20th century and set them to music. And it really works, in fact it works in the same way that Carole King's Really Rosie did. Carole really had nothing to left to say at that point lyrically -- as two previous albums had more than demonstrated. Pairing her music up with Maurice Sendak's children's poetry allowed her to shine. "Such suffering, hand me a Bufferin." Indeed.

I would assume Natalie Merchant's well wasn't that dry since her 2003 album was a cover album of traditional folk songs; however, who knows?

The album is probably the strongest of all her solo work and at time seems to tap into the same vein as 10,000 Maniacs' Our Time In Eden ("The Walloping Window Blind," for example, would easily fit on Our Time In Eden). Not everything, however, works. This not being a soundtrack for a Tim Burton film starring Johnny Depp, I could have done without the spoken jibber-jabber on the otherwise excellent "The Sleepy Giant." When it falls apart, it's due to the spoken word passages such as on that song and on "The Peppery Man" and "Topsyturvey World" among others. I can't figure out what the thinking was on that?

The dialogue adds nothing to the songs and, in fact, detracts from the mood that would otherwise be created. I make a point not to include those when I ripped the CD to my laptop. The album itself is divided by Merchant into "Leave Your Supper" and "Leave Your Sleep." I'm guessing here but I'm assuming the more relaxed songs on disc one are meant to take you to slumber land while the more driving songs on the second disc are supposed to awaken you.

For repeat listens and for putting on "repeat," disc one works better for me just because the songs transition better. That's not to say that disc two isn't worth listening to or doesn't have riches (check out "The Land of Nod" and "Vain and Careless," for starters), but I personally prefer disc one because, among other reasons, it doesn't include a whistle among the instruments (that ruins "Crying, My Little One" for me, taking me out of the song and to some cop directing traffic). It's worth noting that when the songs fail for me it has to do with some additional ingredient (a voice over, a whistle, etc). Merchant's always written strong music and there are new levels to be found in this collection. There's also the voice that is one of a kind and continues to find deeper and darker notes that she did not possess in her earlier days.

Should you download or buy the album? I picked it up on the road for $19.99 at a CD shop near a campus. (New copy, not used.) It's listing for $24.99 and that's a lot in the Great Recession, I know. Currently, Amazon has the double disc CD on sale for $19.99 and the download on sale for $18.99. At $18.99 as the sale price for the download, I'd encourage you to go ahead and buy the discs. There's some digital booklet you can download with the album but I doubt it will turn out as well as the 80-page booklet that comes with the discs. And, it should be noted, the cover's gorgeous. I'm not referring to Natalie Merchant. She is an attractive woman, yes. But I'm referring to the photograph itself which contains so many shades of dark and is truly a gorgeous photograph.

If you're a Natalie Merchant fan (solo), you're going to love this album much, much more than I do. I'm a 10,000 Maniacs fan who likes Merchant and I really love Leave Your Sleep.