The former lead singer for 10,000 Maniacs has floundered frequently since her 1995 solo debut Tigerlily, but there are traces of some much needed spark on her latest release, Motherland.
For starters, Merchant is singing better than she has in a decade, occasionally embracing a bluesier sound and even teaming with gospel legend Mavis Staples on the gritty “Saint Judas” and “Build a Levee.” She unexpectedly evokes echoes of Eddie Vedder on the accordion-, banjo-, and mandolin-tinged title track and offers a fascinating look at the state of the nation on the Middle Eastern-flavored “This House is on Fire.” While it is particularly poignant at the moment, the latter song was actually written prior to Sept. 11, and inspired by last year's World Trade Organization protests in Seattle and the bitterly contested U.S. presidential election.
Merchant's writing is still inconsistent though, and other than “Not in This Life”— which definitely recalls her work with 10,000 Maniacs — the second half of the set slips noticeably. Nevertheless, this is a step up from her recent work, and a small but promising return to form from one of the major artists of the late 1980s and early '90s.
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