I am a big fan of 10,000 Maniacs/Natalie Merchant. It has been tough waiting so long for a new album after her last release (The excellent "The House Carpenter's Daughter"). The long wait has been amply rewarded with the two-disc set "Leave Your Sleep." The album details are covered enough in the product description and other reviews, so I will not go into the impressive list of contributing musicians and amazing process Merchant used in making the album.
The aspect of "Leave Your Sleep" that impresses me most is the high quality of Merchant's voice. She has never sounded this good, which is saying something. Sure, the selection of poetry is awesome and the music itself is brilliant, but it is Natalie's vocals that tie everything together and make this album such a masterpiece. She delivers perfect vocals throughout the two discs. Given the wide variety of styles among the 26 songs, one would think there might be a few so-so songs. Not so. Natalie can take virtually any genre and make it her own. I am enjoying everything about "Leave Your Sleep." It will take me more time to fully digest everything about the album, but so far after listening through the discs several times I am amazed at how my already lofty expectations have been exceeded. I only hope that Natalie doesn't leave us hanging so long between this album and her next.
Natalie Merchant has long left the commercial/mainstream musical scene. Her previous 2 albums, 2001's "Motherland" and 2003's "The House Carpenter's Daughter" were each fantastic, and deeply personal, albums, so for anyone looking for more of "Tigerlily" or even the 10,000 Maniacs sound, surely a disappoitment. Since her last album 7 years ago, Natalie became a mother and she has spent time away to be with her young daughter. Now comes the long-awaited new album.
"Leave Your Sleep" (2 CDs; 26 tracks; 105 min.) is Natalie's most personal album yet, if you can believe that. In the Introduction of the wonderful 80 page booklet that comes with this album, Natalie writes "This collection of songs represents parts of a long conversation I've had with my daughter during the first six years of her life". The entire collection overwhelms you at first, given the scope of the project, and it takes several listens to start feeling at home with it, so to speak. This is, in essence, a childrens' album for adults, although it doesn't sound like that. From the first sounds of the opening track "Nursery Rhymes of Innocense and Experience", the album gives a distinct feeling of Irish-themed music (with lots of flutes in many of the songs), while others feel like cabaret-lite (and I mean that in the best sense). The reggae-flavored "Topsyturvy World" is a rare (but great) departure. But what carries this album more than anything else, is Natalie's warm and soothing voice.
Despite the personal theme to the album, I did not find the emotional bond that I had (and still have) with the "Motherland" and "House Carpenter" albums, reason I rate this album "only" 4 stars. That said, if you are on the fence about buying the single CD "Selections" or this double CD, by all means, by the double CD, you won't regert it. For a few more dollars, it gets you 10 extra songs, and the already-mentioned fabulous 80 page booklet, with all the lyrics, and even better, Natalie's musings on how all of the songs came about, in particular the background on the poets and poems that inspired the songs. I will never tire of listening to her voice and her singing, reason I have bought all of her albums (most of them sound unheard, as I did here).
I have seen Natalie in concert a number of times over the years in her solo career, and I have never been disappointed by any of her performances. Thrilled is a better way to express it. I hope to catch her soon on her impending US tour. Can't wait for that.
on April 25, 2010
After reading the book that accompanies the album, listening carefully to every song, and thinking about it for a while, I have decided that "Leave Your Sleep" belongs in the same category as "Automatic for the People", "Graceland", "Sgt. Pepper" and the other mold-breaking albums that changed everything and took music to a new level. This album represents so much effort, genius, taste, love and devotion that words really can't describe it. I have been a big fan of Natalie Merchant for many years, because of her musical talent. Now I am a much bigger fan, because of who she is.
on May 12, 2010
In an internet download age, it takes real guts on Natalie Merchant's part to release a true concept album, and one that ranks among the best ones.
The first thing you notice is the book, beautifully printed on lavish paper, containing all of the lyrics (poems, actually) and brief biographical essays about the featured poets.
Then, more important, there's the music.
Which is as rich, varied, textured, sophisticated yet highly enjoyable as you could possibly imagine.
Almost every facet of popular music is explored, and NM succeeds in mastering them all.
And the voice...
1) Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience - with Irish band Lùnasa and a lush 13 pieces string orchestra: an evocative song about sailors, children's dreams and coming of age. Ends with a beautiful orchestra-only coda.
2) Equestrienne - A "circus song" that might well be Ms. Merchant's "Being for the benefit of Mr Kite". The strings underline a 3/4 melody and NM overdubs herself on harmony vocals on the chorus. In the quiet passages you can hear the "breathing" of the pump organ, which seems to echo the snorting of the horse the song's about... nice touch, don't know if that was intended though.. ;-).
Drum rolls (strangely unaccredited) introduce the crescendo of the brass arrangement. Again, a delightful coda, with "pizzicato strings" this time.
3) Calico Pie - one of Edward Lear's poems set to a delightful melody. Very up-tempo and joyous banjo & fiddle spark off the light-hearted mood here, again NM doubles her voice on the chorus. The extra touch here is the dulcimer solo on the bridge. Great song.
4) Bleezer's Ice Cream - A stroke of genius. One of the clear winners on the album. An exhilarating, irresistible list of the 28 unlikely flavours Ebenezer Bleezer keeps in his freezer... Gospel group The Fairfield Four counterpoints NM as she runs through the unlikely list. Pure, no-prisoners fun. Trumpeter-extraordinaire Wynton Marsalis arranges and plays a brief, great solo.
On the outro the instruments gradually fade out, leaving NM and the group chanting almost a cappella.
There's no way this number can fail to put a smile on your face whenever you listen to it.
5) It Makes a Change - The steady piano chords (with bass and drums courtesy of Medeski, Martin & Wood) of the arrangement bring us in pure 60s pop territory, reminding me of The Carpenters in particular... and the brass explosion in the ending, accompanied by the always steady rhythm, are playfully Beatlesque to my ears... another great song.
6) The King of China's Daughter - Chinese melody and instrumentation for this delicate poem about a "skipping rope made of singing birds' notes". Tasteful and gentle.
7) The Dancing Bear - This time it's Klezmer time with the Klezmatics! Perhaps not much new here musically speaking, but again a great melody and the Klezmatics' spicy playing turn this great poem into a beautiful song.
A trio of songs with sparse instrumentation follow, which give emphasis to the beautiful melodies and to NM's voice, really on the foreground here:
8) The Man in the Wilderness
9) maggie and millie and mollie and may
10) If No One ever Marries Me
m&m&m&m begins with only piano (again, strangely unaccredited in the liner notes), guitar and bass, till a beautiful string crescendo in the bridge allows the song to really take off.
"If No One..." turns out to be, in lyrics (Alma-Tadema's poem), melody and arrangement, a quintessential Merchant song, one that would have perfectly fit among the best things in any of her albums.
11) The Sleepy Giant - Baroque instrumentation (concertina, Baroque guitar, viola da gamba, harpsichord) for another enchanting "period performance".
12) The Peppery Man - Gospel group Fairfield Four (there's five of them, actually...) return for this number. Which begins as a very rural, down-home blues with only vocals (NM+FF) and a slide dobro. One by one they are joined, in order, by guitar, tuba, diatonic and chromatic harmonicas (left and right channels), baritone sax and drums, till the whole number becomes a bouncy, soulful, almost marching band-like Dixieland affair.
13) The Blind Men and the Elephant - again the Fairfields in another great Dixie number, to which the Ditty Bop singers add a 30s ironic feel.
Discs 2 kicks off with a stunning sequence of 6 absolute masterpieces:
1) Adventures of Isabel - a relentless, infectious Cajun arrangement, continuously relaunched by its stop and go structure. Check out the plucked banjo passages. Masterful.
2) The Walloping Window Blind - A playful song about an eccentric, off-the-wall sailing crew, filled with Peter Pan-ish characters. You can indeed imagine, as NM stated somewhere, children jumping on their beds while singing along. Lùnasa again lend their whistles and uillean pipes to the playful mood.
3) Topsyturvey-World - One of the most unusual tracks on the album, this XIX Century poem effortlessly is turned into a very relaxed reggae groove. Wonderfully conceived and performed, one of the highlights in my opinion. Sheer brilliance.
4) The Janitor's Boy - Another New Orleans flavoured gem, with Wynton Marsalis' arrangement and a humorous, growling trombone feature. The poem's lines are so irresistible in their youthful innocence and exuberance.
5) Griselda - Another highlight and a track that will please those who like their Merchant at her most rock'n'rolling. A spirited, vibrant Memphis soul rocker in which each verse is kicked forward by a relentless guitar-Hammond-horns crescendo. Thumbs up for James Spake's superb arrangement here.
6) The Land of Nod - A plucked harp introduces maybe the most cinematic number on the album. A 26 piece strings & brass orchestra provides a lush, soaring and moving soundtrack for this journey into the obscure Land of Nod. Majestic.
Four songs follow which in my opinion are fine, but perhaps don't add much to what previously heard:
7) Vain and Careless (Baroque style); 8) Crying my little one (beautiful melody - with Lùnasa); 9) Sweet and a Lullaby (a "country dance" song) 10) I Saw a Ship A-Sailing (Lùnasa again)
11) Autumn Lullaby - which is exactly that, a tender lullaby given the sparsest arrangement of the whole lot of songs - only harp, clarinet and flute.
12) Spring and Fall: to a young child - We approach the grand finale with another highlight. A twenty odd piece orchestra, masterfully and subtly arranged, lending dark and arcane shades to a sombre poem about a child facing for the first time the mystery of death.
13) Indian Names - the last track is perhaps the most difficult and demanding one - the poem is about Native Americans' heritage, still living in the rivers and the land they'd given their names to. The music is very interesting, even if not immediately catchy... this one requires perhaps repeated listening to grow on you.
Moral: a great album throughout - pure quality and not a single filler - how many records can you say that about, nowadays?
on April 19, 2010
As parents, we tend to embarass our children. What was perfect when they were younger seems strange when they reach the teenage years. I doubt my 16-year-old daughter relishes her baby pictures being incorporated into undergrad lectures or having me forever reviving a chant poem about her first words uttered in 1994. Imagine then, having your pop icon mama composing an expensive and expansive 26-song album in your honor. But that's just the artistic blessing of being born Natalie Merchant's daughter.
Released on April 13, Leave Your Sleep dances into our waking dreams as the kind of epic project that only a unique literary and musical genius on extended maternity leave could compose. Costing thousands and thousands to produce and involving hundreds of collaborating musicians, Leave Your Sleep enchants, educates, and enthralls. Merchant confesses to finding the songs to resuscitate poems in her mind while nursing her now six-year-old daughter.
With a tip of the bonnet to William Blake, the album opens with Charles Causley's "Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience." Immediately, listeners know that Natalie Merchant does not confine her craft to the carseat of genres called "kid's albums." With Leave Your Sleep, our hearts swim in a deep well of serious folk music and not a single chirpy singalong to annoy parents on long drives can be found among these 26 tracks.
The more clever tracks could border on the cute but never in a cringe-worthy way. Collaborating with Medeski, Martin, and Wood on the swingy "It Makes A Change," Merchant marvels us with Mervyn Peake's whimsical meditations on a whale "feeling high and mighty" wearing "Aunt Mabel's nighty." The poem "lights up the breakfast table," and I haven't felt this good about dancing while planning the morning meal since Poi Dog Pondering's jubilant take on "Toast and Jelly."
From turning Ogden Nash's "Adventures of Isabel" into a fiddle-fired Appalachian jam or giving William Brighty Rands' "Topseyturvey-World" a worldly ska-reggae beat, Merchant confirms the musical diversity and visionary versatility that's been embedded in her creative DNA since the earliest 10,000 Maniacs records.
With a litany of flavors to make Ben and Jerry weep and a wordplay that would amaze even Dr. Seuss, Jack Prelutsky's "Bleezer's Ice Cream" funks along to a downtown ragtime vibe. A poem about a person Merchant dubs a "badass dude," "Peppery Man" began as an Irish jig but gets a gospel-blues treatment enhanced by the voices of the great gospel group Fairfield Four. The teacherly Merchant doesn't fancy a preacher's son but joyfully serenades "The Janitor's Boy," a Nathalia Crane poem placed in the same room with Wynton Marsalis trumpet riffs.
The haunting treatment of Lydia Huntley Sigourney's "Indian Names" shows that Merchant has hardly lost her earnest, activist edge. While some tracks get pure injections of innocent frivolity, Merchant researched the epic release with the diligence of an unemployed English major seeking a doctoral dissertation commisioned by the heavens.