The online e-zine Flak has some very unkind words about the recent new CDs by Liz Phair and Natalie Merchant:
Liz Phair and Natalie Merchant seem to want to trade places. Merchant, who has had numerous hits and enviable album sales with 10,000 Maniacs and as a solo artist, left her label, Elektra, last August to form her own, Myth America Records. "Natalie Merchant has stepped off the pop treadmill," the New York Times announced in March, with no argument from the singer. The House Carpenter's Daughter is her label's first offering, and it indicates Merchant's willingness to settle into middle age as an indie doyenne, producing personal albums and supporting them on her own dime.
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Merchant's voice--consonant-averse, non-physical, confrontational, angry tones--is unique, to be sure, and beloved by many. But when the songs are weak and the production uneven--on the bulk of Ophelia, for example--her voice operates as an anesthetic. Conversely, when song and production are tailored to Merchant's open, gentle tones, the result is "Birds and Ships" from 1998's Mermaid Avenue, where her smooth reading deepens the song's meaning. It's like Brad Pitt: As long as the script is strong and the direction sure-handed, the one-note gesticulating and vocal flatness are less apparent, even suitable.
No such luck on The House Carpenter's Daughter. It may be the fault of song choice--none of the numbers Merchant culled from various folk catalogs gives off any sparks. "Soldier, Soldier," a tale of a woman's failed efforts to marry a man before the war, is complemented by a swampy, fuzzed-guitar groove straight from a Tom Waits session; "Crazy Man Michael," about a man doomed by prophecy to take his lover's life, is imbued with honeyed guitar and organ work; "Owensboro," a working woman's lament, features acoustic guitar and banjo-picking you might find on any of a dozen clichéd Southern porches. These tracks are produced with eclecticism and style, but through it all is the limp sameness of Merchant's voice.