With her first completely independent release since the fledgling days of her former band, 10,000 Maniacs, Natalie Merchant has (at least temporarily) put down the pen, not to mention the pop.
This new disc, an unassuming collection of traditional and contemporary folk music, finds Merchant blowing the dust off a truly remarkable collection of songs, and a varied one at that. Given the fact that an album of this nature could easily come off as a collection of bland, reheated delicacies (“Natalie Merchant Sings the Oldies”), one of Merchant’s greatest accomplishments here is her ability to reinvent the songs without sacrificing a shred of their original brilliance.
Originally written in 1932 by the wife of a labor organizer for the National Miner’s Union, “Which Side Are You On?” recounts how the mining company hired deputies to illegally enter and search her family’s home. Particularly beautiful in this album’s rendition are the tight male harmonies of its persistent refrain, in which Merchant is supported by The Menfolk (not to be confused with The Folksmen of A Mighty Wind, Christopher Guest’s good-natured lampoon on the folk music world).
The eerie murder ballad, “Diver Boy,” relates the tale of a young woman’s lover returning from treasure-hunting across the ocean to collect her, only to be robbed and killed by his beloved’s father and brother on the eve of their wedding.
One of several traditional hymns on the album, “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” speaks of the hymn writer’s anticipation of leaving this “world of woe” in order to reach the “bright land” at last. The hymn’s simple text rings with longing and a tender hope for eventual reprieve from life’s struggle, a familiar theme in the writing of hardworking 19th-century tenant farmers. Merchant’s plaintive vocals capture the tired passion that these songs require to breathe.
While many of the tracks on The House Carpenter’s Daughter have been salvaged like relics from an obscure musical past, Merchant also wants to remind listeners that vital folk music is still being written. The opening track on the album, “Sally Ann,” was originally written and performed by The Horseflies out of Ithaca, N.Y., a band whose concerts Merchant frequently attended. Two of the members of that group, Judy Hyman and Richie Stearns, play violin and banjo on these recordings.
Folk music persists because there will always be hard times and good times. We can all be thankful that Natalie Merchant’s around to sing them