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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1345

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Natalie Merchant: The House Carpenter's Daughter
by George Graham

(Myth America 1026 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/19/2003)

Ever since the mid-1960s emergence of Bob Dylan, for most people, "folk music" has come to mean acoustic-guitar strumming singer-songwriters. But up until then, folk music meant old songs by anonymous authors passed down through the oral tradition. Artists who did their own music would likely encounter howls of protest from the folk purists. Today, there are few performers recording who could be considered folk musicians in the classic sense. But that has not stopped artists from incorporating some occasional traditional material on their recordings, and indeed we seem to be in another of those periodic revivals of interest in such music, helped to some extent by the popularity a couple of years ago of the old-time folk oriented soundtrack to the film O Brother Where Art Thou?

This week, we have a fine example of a capable and well-known singer-songwriter turning to traditional music for her newest album and giving the old music a different twist. Natalie Merchant has released a new CD called The House Carpenter's Daughter.

Natalie Merchant is known for her decade with the popular upstate New York band 10,000 Maniacs who emerged in 1983 with an intriguing blend of atmospheric alternative rock with astute lyrics. After four solo albums in the conventional singer-songwriter mode on major record companies, Ms. Merchant, having launched her own label, decided to delve into what she calls "traditional and contemporary folk music." And like many before her, she writes in her notes in this very attractive booklet styled CD speculating about just what folk music is. And her answer is described in theCD's subtitle -- music that running from very old, and very traditional, to semi-traditional material from the Carter Family, to music by the English folk band Fairport Convention from the 1960s, to a song by two of the musicians who perform as her backing band on the CD. And while Ms. Merchant's goal was to do traditional music, the arrangements are rather eclectic, blending a plaintive banjo with occasional rock-band instrumentation. For the most part, her performances have a kind of dark, brooding quality, in some ways reminiscent of the music of Gillian Welch, who is also known to use electric guitar. The result is a fascinating album that blends both familiar songs and somewhat obscure material with creative musical approaches. Ms. Merchant's intrinsically melancholy vocals are a perfect match for the material, and even when she and her group take considerable liberties with the songs, the result is always tasteful.

Her band on the CD includes Graham Maby, the former bassist for Joe Jackson's band, Erik Della Penna on guitar and lap steel, Elizabeth Steen on keyboards, including a rock-style organ, Alison Miller on drums, and the two former members of the Ithaca-based Horseflies, a wildly eclectic old-timey band with synthesizers, fiddler Judy Hyman and banjoist Richard Stearns.

The CD starts with its newest composition, Sally Ann, by members of the Horseflies, written in 1991. In keeping with the song's more contemporary provenance, the instrumentation is rather more electric and produced in sound with backing vocals. <<>>

The first of the real folk songs on the CD is the great old union anthem, Which Side Are You On, which grew out of a labor strike in Kentucky in the 1930s, but which also saw a revival in the 1960s. Though the rock-band instrumentation provides the backing, the performance is outstanding, with Ms. Merchant's vocals capturing beautifully the mood of the piece. <<>>

One of the more obscure traditional folk songs that Ms. Merchant includes is Diver Boy, which the artist points out in her notes has all the elements that make up a perfect murder ballad. The arrangement though electric, is quite haunting in keeping with the mood of the lyrics. <<>>

Also with a murder in it, is a song from the 1960s, Crazy Man Michael, written by Richard Thompson and Dave Swarbrick of Fairport Convention. It's a great old song, especially for around Halloween, that sounds as if it could have come from the days of misty castles. <<>>

The most upbeat track on this generally somber-sounding CD is the old Carter Family song Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow, which Ms. Merchant points out was the first song to be recorded by the Carter Family in 1927. The musical arrangement is a contrast to the sad lyrics about a woman being jilted on the eve of her wedding. <<>>

My favorite track in the title piece, The House Carpenter, another old traditional song of unfaithfulness and death. This is song that has been recorded quite a bit over the years, but Ms. Merchant's version is a standout. Building in momentum, the rock band eventually makes its entrance while staying tasteful and true to the mood. <<>>

The most surprising track is Soldier, Soldier, which Ms. Merchant says is a children's song that comes from the Deep South, where it was used to accompany jumping rope. The band gives it a kind of swamp blues treatment, with the incongruous addition of Rich Stearns' banjo. <<>>

The CD ends with another of its best true folk songs, Wayfaring Stranger, which was a staple at folk music gatherings in the 1960s. Ms. Merchant's version gives the familiar tune a different twist with the full lyrics that she dug up, and the almost spectral accompaniment. <<>>

After a 20 year career first with 10,000 Maniacs and on her own since the mid 1990s, Natalie Merchant, on her fourth solo release, The House Carpenter's Daughter, creates a CD that lives up to its subtitle, "a collection of traditional and contemporary folk songs." Folk music purists might take issue with the often electric instrumentation, but eclecticism was a goal of the recording, putting new spins on old songs without losing their basic direction and mood. The often somber arrangements, though imbued with rock instrumentation, can combine with some of the lyrics about murder and unfaithfulness, to create music that's downright striking in sound. Ms. Merchant proves to be a brilliant re-interpreter of the old songs.

About an A-minus is our grade for sound quality. Ms. Merchant's vocals are well recorded, and the mix enhances the atmospheric quality of the music and arrangements. But the dynamic range, the difference between soft and loud passages, is only mediocre.

It has often been said that the old songs are the best ones. That is not always the case, but Natalie Merchant's new CD The House Carpenter's Daughter casts an interesting light on some of the good old folk songs.

(c) Copyright 2003 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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