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Leave Your Sleep (2CD)
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'This album captures so many magical moments, the best times I've ever had as a musician,' declares singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant of 'Leave Your Sleep,' her ambitious, two-disc Nonesuch debut. Merchant, celebrated solo artist and one-time voice of 10,000 Maniacs, took on what could have been a daunting task: she's adapted 19th and 20th century British and American poetry - well-known and obscure works, anonymous rhymes, children's lullabies, all of it timeless
material full of direct emotion - and fashioned new songs from these words. Among the poets she chose were Robert Graves, Charles Manley Hopkins, Edward Lear, Ogden Nash, and Robert Louis Stevenson. The project, five years in the making, has clearly had a liberating effect on Merchant. Never has she sounded so free-spirited, so full of musical
adventure, whether backed by small jazzy combos or elegant chamber ensembles. The tracks she's created range from exotic ('The King of China's Daughter') to earthy ('Peppery Man'), soothing ('I Saw A Ship A-Sailing') to swinging ('The Janitor's Boy'), mischievous ('It Makes A Change') to moving ('Spring and Fall'). The string arrangements are particularly
stirring, recalling Joshua Rifkin's now-classic work on Judy Collins' 'Wildflowers.'
There's plenty of child-like wonder, counterbalanced with grown-up sophistication. Says Merchant, 'It was an exciting, new approach for me to work with rhythm and rhyme schemes created by other writers. The poems inspired vastly different musical settings with their themes that ranged from humorous and absurd to tragic, romantic, and deeply spiritual. Over the course of three years I wrote 40 of these poem-songs and 30 were eventually recorded.'
Merchant co-produced 'Leave Your Sleep' with Venezuelan musician-composer Andres Levin, a frequent collaborator of David Byrne and Arto Lindsay, and one of the creators of the eclectic Red Hot charity series. Over the course of a year's worth of exhilarating, musically shape-shifting sessions, they drew upon no less than 125 musicians from the varied worlds
of, among other things, Cajun, country, jazz, chamber music, R&B, Celtic, and reggae. The revitalized Merchant explains, 'I called on old friends and approached many new musicians I only knew through admiring their work... The sessions were recorded in live ensemble workshop settings that captured pure and authentic sounds played with incredibly fresh and
'Leave Your Sleep' is an inspired return for Merchant, her first studio album in six years - an effort long awaited by her considerable fan base. It also marks her 25th year as a uniquely successful major-label artist, one whose work has consistently enjoyed equal measures of commercial and critical success. Though she has regularly lent her talents over the last few years to the many nonprofit causes she supports, Merchant has actively returned to the concert stage in recent months, previewing material from 'Leave Your Sleep,' on a series of dates in England and continental Europe. A full U.S. tour is being planned for summer 2010.
Top customer reviews
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?
If there's something I admire about Natalie Merchant and all her mates from her age (e.g. Michael Stipe) is that she's one of those singers who has forgotten about being in a cover of a magazine or being around all the media that eventually ends up destroying the magic in music itself. She's one of those singers who has come back to share with her fans and any smart person willing to listen to her what she has come up to with "Leave your sleep".