With Our Mothers (6/07/2002)
Natalie Merchant, Motherland (Elektra 2001) - On her third studio solo album since leaving the 10,000 Maniacs, Natalie Merchant settled in with producer T-Bone Burnett. Burnett favors a subdued, folk-influenced sound, leading to the somber overtones on Motherland.
Natalie Merchant's recording career goes back almost 20 years to her early efforts with the 10,000 Maniacs. Her first two solo efforts, Tigerlily (1995) and the astonishing Ophelia (1998) were worthy successors to the 10,000 Maniacs' sendoff, MTV Unplugged (1993).
Merchant works with a stellar band, including Erik Dela Penna on guitar and banjo, Gabriel Gordon on guitar, Graham Maby on bass, Elizabeth Steen on keyboards, Matt Chamberlain on drums, and David Ralicke on sax. Making guest appearances are gospel legend Mavis Staples and Stephen Barber, who provides string arrangements on three songs.
Unfortunately, the new album slips, as Merchant spends too much time focusing on the political, and not enough time bringing out her pop sensibilities. Try "This House is on Fire," "St. Judas," and "Just Can't Last."
I remain a fan of Merchant's singing style and enunciation. Yet the big issues she tries to tackle are too much for pop songs. For example, Merchant explains the song "Golden Boy" as follows: "I suddenly realized that I was addressing the unhealthy tendency we have as a culture to fix our tension upon the deviant and violent outcast (such as Columbine High School). Names of serial killers are easier to conjure than names of great humanitarians. We repeatedly make celebrities out of psychopaths, whether we intend to or not."
Also included is the intriguing "Henry Darger," with an eerie chamber orchestra arrangement. It turns out that Henry Darger (1892-1973) is the author and illustrator of one of the longest unfinished fictional works of all time. His towering hand-bound manuscript of 17,000 pages was found in the apartment of the retired hospital janitor after his death, and include hundreds of illustrations depicting the battle between the forces of good and evil as seen through Darger's imaginative fantasy world.
It is not easy to penetrate Motherland on the first go (or even after several listening). The voice is great, but the material leaves me wondering.
Best of Olivia Newton-John: The Millennium Collection (Hip-O 2002) - Honey-voiced singer Olivia Newton-John gets a 12-track overview on Best Of. Covering a 10-year period, from her 1973 debut with "Let Me Be There," through "Twist Of Fate," a duet with John Travolta recorded in 1983, the album shows a changing talent.
Universal Records is planning a major Olivia Newton-John rollout, including a 2000 live album, "Compilations of Dance and Lovesongs," and a box set. Yet Best Of will give you a good taste of this Australian-born singer (who started performing in the United States at the request of Helen Reddy).
It's interesting to note the shifts in her career, from her original softer country, including "Have You Never Been Mellow?", through the breathy pop of "Please Mister Please" to the Hollywood sheen of Grease, the biggest-grossing movie musical of all time (represented by "Hopelessly Devoted to You"). Also included is "Magic," from her 1980 followup film, Xanadu, and "Suddenly," a duet with Cliff Richard.
Grease came from real inspiration. Says Olivia, "The characters were larger than life. I think everyone knows one of those people at their school - the nerd, the prettiest girl, the cheerleader, and the leader of the gang - and they can relate to all their characters. There was an incredible energy in the film that's vibrant."
Continues Olivia, "I never had the teenage school experience that Americans have, where you don't have to wear uniforms and you can mix with the guys. And the school I went to, it was all segregated and we wore uniforms. Doing Grease, I kind of felt like I was having my second childhood and it was so much fun."
A real trouper, and an inspiration to clean living, Best of Olivia Newton-John will find new fans.
Madonna, Greatest Hits, Volume 2 (Maverick/Warner Bros. 2001) - Apparently Madonna needs no introduction, as there is no press kit for Greatest Hits, Volume 2. Yet work your way through these 15 tracks, then see if you can hum a few bars from any of the songs.
You can't, which reflects the enormous change in Madonna's music as it shifted from straight pop to the dance hall. While songs like "Deeper and Deeper" and "Frozen" (the later produced by William Orbit) may be effective in a disco, they don't hold up by themselves.
Compare this with Madonna's first hits volume, The Immaculate Collection, which included such songs as "Holiday," "Like a Virgin," and "Papa Don't Preach." The old Madonna looked for melody, but the new Madonna looks for groove, as exemplified by the picture-perfect "Beautiful Stranger."
So you won't be surprised when the highlight on GHV2 is the lovely ballad, "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" from the movie musical, Evita. The soundtrack to Evita is one of the highlights of Madonna's career, a real meeting of voice and material.
I'll give Madonna credit for offering something to her fans, as GHV2 includes the radio edits and club versions of the songs. Thus, fans are getting "Something New." In the end, GHV2 is hip and happening, but ultimately hollow.
- Randy Krbechek © 2002
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