Music review: Natalie Merchant by Natalie Merchant

Her first offering of completely original material in 13 years, Natalie Merchant’s eponymous album is a triumph, writes Philip Cummins

Originally published by Entertainment Ireland. To read the original, please click here

Natalie Merchant album art

Natalie Merchant’s eponymously titled new album is a triumph.

Following 2010’s Leave Your Sleep, a concept project thematically focused on childhood, featuring British and American poems set to music, former 10,000 Maniacs singer Natalie Merchant returns with an eponymously titled and self- produced record, her first studio album of fresh compositions since 2001’s Motherland.

Opening track and flagship single ‘Ladybird’ is a beautifully mixed pop song brimming with soul. The verses feature almost minimal instrumentation, the bridge and choruses lifting off the ground with melodic multi- tracked backing vocals, lush strings and understated guitar scales, all of which could, in the wrong hands, could become overblown and overcooked.

The songs that follow are nowhere near the ecstatic pop heights of ‘Ladybird’; rather, ‘Ladybird’ is used as a shade to contrast the austere, mature and oak-y sounds of the following ten songs. A song full of aphorisms, ‘What Maggie Said’ is certainly one for Gillian Welch fans, its combination of Dylanesque wisdom and a memorable chorus shot through a finger- picked acoustic guitar full of references to other songs. There is also a sense that the 50-year-old singer- songwriter is aware of her influences; ‘Texas’, a restless, shifting minor- key tune, feels less like a song about the lone star state and more of an homage to Texas songwriters, such as Townes Van Zandt and Lyle Lovett.

It’s when Merchant moves out of her comfort zone that the record begins to take shape. Singing about New Orleans, which post- Katrina has almost become a song form in itself for many American songwriters, Merchant’s ‘Go Down, Moses’ is, perhaps, the most New Orleans- sounding tribute to The Crescent City, featuring more funk and boogie than at which you can shake a Dr. John record. Lyrically, it encapsulates the central themes of the record: those of resolving one’s self with the past for the benefit of what may lay ahead, or as Merchant writes “Well, I’m far too quick with the poison pen, / can’t believe I’m writing again after all these goddamned years.”

There are missteps: the jaded metaphor of ‘Black Sheep’ titles a song that is too derived from the slow, gritty jazz of Tom Waits at his barfly best. A closing trio of a silent movie- era ditty (‘Lulu (Introduction’)), a bookend to the lush pop of ‘Ladybird’ (‘Lulu’) and a beautiful, elegiac closer (‘The End’), however, are enough to merit Merchant’s beautiful, mature and memorable record a triumph.


John Mayer – Born and Raised

Born again: John Mayer’s fifth studio album, ‘Born and Raised’, is a return to form.

Having almost successfully recovered from his disastrous and downright bizarre February 2010 Playboy interview, removing himself from Hollywood’s A- list party circuit and selling his bi- coastal homes L.A. and New York in favour of a self- imposed, frugal lifestyle in Bozeman, Montana, John Mayer has spent the ensuing time eating humble pie; nowhere is this more evident than on his fifth record, Born and Raised, his most focused, mature, honest and fully realised album to date.

On opener ‘Queen of California’, Mayer sets out his stall; this is an album in the vein of the big, era- defining folk albums of the 70’s, such as Neil Young’s Harvest, James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James and the debut solo records of Stephen Stills and Paul Simon. Mayer’s subtle finger- picking and references to Neil Young (Looking for the sun that Neil Young sung/ After the gold rush of 1971), Blood on the Tracks– era Bob Dylan (If you see her, say hello) and Joni Mitchell (Joni wrote Blue in her house by the sea/ I gotta believe there’s another color waiting on me) all convey a move towards the confessional, folk song- writing that defined Mayer’s career with 2003 hit ‘Daughters’ but was subsequently sidelined in favour of the audacious blues chops he displayed on 2005’s live album, Try!, and the more restrained, soulful blues playing of 2006’s Continuum– arguably his best record- which earned him a place on Rolling Stone’s New Guitar Gods, with the nickname “Slowhand Jr.”- a favourable nod to that other blues guitarist who crossed over to popular, mainstream audiences.

Throughout Born and Raised, Mayer shows an astute understanding of styles and forms. Like ‘Queen of California’, ‘Something Like Olivia’ uses that most humble and honest of all song forms; 12- bar blues. ‘Something Like Olivia’ finds Mayer attempting to resolve his devil- may- care, man- about- town- urges of old, with his newly found moral order and conduct. This, of course, turns out to be a theme at the heart of the record; that one person’s redemption can only be achieved by progressing past life’s ill- judged choices and by chalking those mistakes down to life experience. Mayer illustrates this best in ‘The Age of Worry’, a simple, AB- form song, which is laden with forceful, Dylan- esque rhetoric (Know your fight is not within/ Yours is with your timing/ Dream your dreams but don’t pretend/ Make friends with what you are).

Flagship single ‘Shadow Days’, the style and sound of which is clearly influenced by George Harrison and Jeff Lynne, is certainly the most colourfully arranged and produced songs of the first side. It is, however, the album’s title track, with harmonies courtesy of Graham Nash and David Crosby, which is one of the strongest songs here and might just be one of the best songs that Mayer has yet written. The gorgeous harmonies, Mayer’s soulful vocal inflections and the acceptance and honesty of his lyrics all melt fluidly and strongly to conclude the first side.

The second side finds Mayer embracing slow- tempo numbers that, again, tip the hat to his many song- writing influences. Despite its- frankly- awful title, ‘Love is a Verb’ is exactly the kind of song that Mayer needs; a slow burning, breezy, ‘Wonderful Tonight’- mode Clapton song. This is followed by ‘Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967’, a song, which in its rhymes, its unusual, intriguing, opening saxophone arrangement and narrative- driven lyrics of hope and aspiration owes much to Paul Simon. Darkness reigns over the brooding ‘Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey’, the chorus of which recalls Jeff Buckley’s ‘Lover, You Should Have Come Over’.

After showing restraint and subtlety in his playing throughout the record, Mayer finally lets himself off the leash on ‘A Face to Call Home’ with some of the most operatic playing on the record that, temporarily, shifts away from the Americana sound that dominates Born and Raised, for a delay- laden, stadium- rock outro, reminiscent U2’s The Edge.

The recurring theme of identity and the inevitable dichotomies- born and raised, folk and blues, fame and anonymity, the public self and the private self- that dominate Born and Raised culminate in ‘Born and Raised (Reprise)’, an alternate version of the title track, which, here, is treated as West coast folk ditty that is as enjoyable to hear as it must have been to record.

Despite going “Americana” and producing his strongest set yet, Mayer might be too divisive a figure in contemporary music to appreciated by fans of Neil Young and Ryan Adams; too unfashionable to persuade those music fans that he’s anything other than a Berklee College of Music- educated pretty boy, who is molly- coddled by his major label and who is more famous for his appearances in TMZ, People magazine, US Weekly and many other celeb gossip magazines. On Born and Raised, however, Mayer does do enough to prove that there is substance in his song- writing and guitar playing; that mainstream American radio and television- now more than ever- needs a major label, Billboard Top 100- topping song- writer and performer of Mayer’s talent and substance to enrich and subvert a mainstream that is dominated by vacuous, auto- tuned, shock and awe value, pop- tarts. The John Mayer of Born and Raised might even appreciate this dichotomy.

Paul Buchanan – Mid Air

Walking on air: Blue Nile singer- songwriter Paul Buchanan is back with his debut solo album, Mid Air.

In his essay ‘The Blue Nile: Family Life’, Marcello Carlin observes that “On every Blue Nile album there is a moment where time is literally stopped and emotion laid open and bare”. Eight years on from The Blue Nile’s previous- some say last- ever- album High, Paul Buchanan, the bands singer- songwriter, has finally delivered the solo album that many long- time fans of The Blue Nile have anticipated. Buchanan’s Mid Air is an album of thirteen, three- minute, piano- led songs and one instrumental, all of which get to straight to the heart of Carlin’s astute observation.

Recorded by Cameron Malcolm (son of long- time Blue Nile producer / engineer Calum Malcolm), the success of Mid Air is largely down to the compression and brevity of Buchanan’s songs, which are as condensed and companionable as short lyric poems. The minimal arrangements that adorn each song eschew the sometimes too slickly produced, glossy feel of later Blue Nile records. Mid Air‘s opening title track features a beautifully restrained vocal from Buchanan, underpinned by light, electronic, orchestral strings. Like Tom Waits- whose common influence of Frank Sinatra looms large on Mid Air– Buchanan delicately croons and plays simple, elementary scales to stunning, emotionally intense effect, most evidently so on album highlight ‘Cars in the Garden’.

Originally given the working title of Minor Poets of the 19th Century (after a book that Buchanan bought in his local Oxfam) Buchanan’s literate lyrics recall Larkin (‘Wedding Party’), Plath (‘Two Children’) and Yeats (‘My True Country’). Prior to recording Mid Air, a close personal friend of Buchanan’s passed on; no surprise, then, that, lyrically, the tone and mood of Mid Air is elegiac. Buchanan, however, extends the elegiac tone beyond bereavement; ‘Newsroom’ is a lament to the last days of print journalism (Last out the newsroom/ Please put the lights out/ There’s no- one left alive), while ‘My True Country’, featuring one of Buchanan’s most impassioned and convincing vocal performances, celebrates an imagined paradise. The portrayal of urban loneliness in the full glare of neon signs during the night- time hours- a central and defining characteristic of a Blue Nile song- is mostly absent on Mid Air, save for ‘Half the World’ and the sublime album- closer, ‘After Dark’.

In Mid Air, Buchanan has crafted an accomplished collection of beautiful, honest songs that, like Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Tom Waits’ Closing Time, rely heavily on the strength of their lyrics, their modest arrangements, and humble, delicate, fragile, convincing vocal performances. A Mercury Music Prize nomination must, surely, be mid- air.

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Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – Mirror Traffic

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – Mirror Traffic


No doubt refreshed and inspired from Pavement’s 2010 reunion, Stephen Malkmus’s fifth solo LP finds the former Pavement frontman more cohesive and tune- based than 2008’s overblown and indulgent Real Emotional Thrash. Produced by Beck (that other poster boy for US indie- rock slackers), Malkmus’ 15- track solo record – made up largely of accessible, three-minute pop songs – is a welcome return to the sound that made his music so endearing in the first place. Flagship single ‘Tigers’, with its opening line of ‘I caught you streaking in your Birkenstocks’ is more Pavement than Pavement themselves, while the slide guitars on the chorus are equally reminiscent of both Silver Jews and, indeed, Beck’s more roots-based material. The choice of an experienced songwriter like Beck as producer has certainly paid off; throughout, Malkmus shows his range as a songwriter. ‘Senator’ is a reminder of Malkmus’ lyrical skills as a ribald social critic of Middle America, while ‘Asking Price’ and ‘Fall Away’ are amongst the most tender and accomplished songs that Malkmus has ever written.

Beck’s presence throughout the record is there, both musically and in spirit. The jaded folk / country of ‘No Is (As I Be Are)’ and ‘Long Hard Book’ could have easily been taken from the producer’s own Mutations, while the instrumental ‘Jumblegloss’ seems like a musical exercise between both artists. Although it might be three tracks too long and the second half lacks the punch of the first, Mirror Traffic will no doubt appeal to those currently caught up in a nineties nostalgia trip and is certainly Malkmus’ most enjoyable and infectious set of songs as a solo artist.

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©  Philip Cummins. All rights reserved.

Paul Simon – So Beautiful or So What

Paul Simon – So Beautiful or So What


In a telling lyric on his eleventh solo studio record, Paul Simon imagines God cruising down a highway in the Midwest of America, criticising American culture: “check out the radio, pop music station / That don’t sound like my music to me.” In one of many lyrics in which Simon uses a mythic figure to reflect his own personal conflicts with America, it neatly sums up the tone of So Beautiful Or So What. Repeatedly throughout, Simon is reaching back into his musical past as a way of reacting to the present. He even delves back to the ‘40’s, sampling a sermon given by Reverend J.M. Gates on ‘Getting Ready for Christmas Day’, the jaunty opening track that recalls Simon classics such as ‘Mother and Child Reunion’ and ‘Kodachrome’ and touches on everything from life in Blue Collar America to Iraq in just over four minutes. Re- uniting with Phil Ramone, who produced all of Simon’s solo records from 1972’s Paul Simon to 1980’s One Trick Pony, the feel of So Beautiful Or So What is similar to his early ‘70’s debut; it feels almost as if the record was recorded live, in a room.

Pushing 70 years of age, Simon clearly has mortality on his mind. Like many songwriters of his age, songs about birth, death and everything in between are inevitable at this point in his life. What makes Simon’s take on the subject so refreshing is how he writes about the big questions with a humorous voice that is indelibly his own. In ‘The Afterlife’, he imposes witty, savvy, demotic tones on life after death: “Had to stand in line / just to glimpse the divine / what ‘cha think about that?”. Again, Simon reaches to the language of a bygone era and the coda of “Be Bop a Lula? Or ooh Papa Doo?” immediately recalls the iconic opening cry of “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom!” from Little Richards’ ‘Tutti Frutti’.

Unlike much of his output since Graceland, the lyrics, melodies and guitar parts are not overshadowed in the mix by the rhythm section. Simon returns to his songwriting approach of constructing the song before the rhythm; an approach which changed during sessions for 1986’s classic Graceland, whereby rhythm dominated and dictated the course of the song. Songs such as ‘Love and Hard Times’, ‘Questions for the Angels’, and instrumental ‘Amulet’- have no percussion at all and there is no bass guitar anywhere on the record.

Lyrically, Simon is, as ever, concerned with the present state of America but is constantly using reference points from the past and in doing so write some of his most vivid and convincing lyrics. His humorous and playful tone- particularly on ‘The Afterlife’ and ‘Rewrite’, a stunning song about a Vietnam vet writing a fictional happy ending for his autobiographical film script is akin to that other maestro of American song: Randy Newman. The piano-led ‘Love and Hard Times’ is laced with the same sardonic humour of Newman’s ‘God’s Song (That’s Why I love Mankind)’, where Simon’s “restless Lord” says “…anyway, these people are slobs here / if we stay, it’s bound to be a mob scene”. A frank social commentator, Simon’s observations throughout the record ensure longevity.

An old hand at making records, Simon knows that the greatness of an album rests on the finishing side. ‘Amulet’, an elegant instrumental, bridges the raucous bluegrass of ‘Love is An Eternal Sacred Light’ with ‘Questions for the Angels’, easily one of his most tender and beautiful compositions. He finishes on the album’s title track, the recurring hammer, on motif of which is reminiscent of the opening motif of Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Mrs. Robinson’. By the end of the albums, 10 tracks clocking at 38 minutes, it’s clear that Simon’s blend of bluegrass, shifting rhythms, poetic lyrics and confessional, solo acoustic centrepieces is almost a retrospective of his entire solo output. It’s also clear that he has crafted his most vital, most complete album in 25 years.

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©  Philip Cummins. All rights reserved.