Record Review - 1 December 05 2001

It's been 16 years since the release of 10,000 Maniacs' proper debut, The Wishing Chair, and former lead singer Natalie Merchant is showing her age.

The fresh-faced ingenue of late-'80s alterna-pop found a new audience after leaving the Maniacs and launching a solo career in the mid-'90s, her ethereal vocals establishing her as a pillar of the female singer/songwriter set.

But can Merchant sustain life after Lilith Fair? The answer, according to her new album, Motherland, is a qualified yes. The CD treads a much darker path than 1995's Tigerlily or 1998's Ophelia. Ostensibly missing are the hints of whimsy that dotted songs like "Kind & Generous" or "Wonder" (sure to be played on soft rock stations long after we're all dead), which are replaced with a harder, more resigned view of life. Though she recorded the new album before the events of Sept. 11, Merchant seems to presuppose a zeitgeist decidedly less optimistic and markedly more vigilant.

The CD opens with "This House is on Fire," an exotic (for this artist) and worry-filled prophecy of future evil. "Build a Levee," which taps the impressive vocals of gospel matriarch Mavis Staples, echoes the tone of warning, as does the moody and rustic "Saint Judas," a meditation on lynchings. Matching this vexing theme of nagging admonitions and I-told-you-so's is Merchant's voice itself, which has ripened slightly and sometimes sounds downright, well, motherly.

Not that Motherland is devoid of hope. The first single, "Just Can't Last," nearly evokes a "These Are Days"-like banter of "everything's gonna be all right." And the title track, though cynical, carries an unintentional resonance given the state of world affairs. Its message of mercy and protection in the face of an uncaring world seems eerily timely.

The new Natalie Merchant, a little jaded and outwardly tense, may not capture the fancy of all the fans of her previous solo works. But Motherland proves that some things do get better with age.

Natalie Merchant performs Mon., Dec. 10, at the Atlanta Civic Center.??