Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Natalie Merchant -- Leave Your Sleep

Leave Your Sleep

Leave Your Sleep, the new album by Natalie Merchant – 26 exquisite songs on two CDs with an 80-page, hardcover book – is a stunning achievement.

Merchant is a successful pop singer – both as a soloist and with 10,000 Maniacs – whose last album of new recordings was The House Carpenter’s Daughter, a fine collection of traditional and contemporary folksongs released seven years ago. Since then, Merchant took time off to have and raise a daughter.

Over the years that Merchant has been raising her child she has been finding poems by various British and American poets from the 19th and 20th centuries, setting the poems to music and researching the lives of the poets (she writes about each of them in the album’s book – which also includes the lyrics).

In composing the music for these poems, Merchant used a broad palette of musical styles, from Appalachian folk to blues, reggae, klezmer, New Orleans jazz, classical, Chinese and Native American music and employed a cast of 130 musicians and singers to help her realize the arrangements. Although the musical styles, arrangements and number of collaborators vary greatly from song to song, the album flows with a seamlessness seemingly borne from Merchant alone.

There is much to admire, if not love, on almost every one of the 26 songs but among my very favourites is “The Dancing Bear,” a poem by Albert Bigelow Paine, a close friend of Mark Twain’s that features the Klezmatics in a klezmer arrangement that’s both plaintive and playful. Another is “The Janitor’s Boy,” a sassy New Orleans jazz setting – featuring a band fronted by Wynton Marsalis – of a poem by Nathalia Crane published in 1924 when the child prodigy poet was all of 11 years old. Another is “Adventures of Isabel,” an Ogden Nash poem, which has a back porch folk feel courtesy of such musicians as Judy Hyman and Richie Stearns of the Horse Flies. And yet another is the blues arrangement of “The Peppery Man,” Arthur Macy’s portrait of a sour, antisocial contrarian that features some amazing vocals by the Fairfield Four.

Truth be told, I could rave on about every poem that Merchant has crafted into a song for this album. Kudos to Natalie Merchant for the conception of this ambitious, grand project – and for realizing it so brilliantly.

We’re just a third of the way through 2010 and I’m sure there will be more worthy releases, but Leave Your Sleep is an early candidate for my album of the year.

--Mike Regenstreif

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