The prodigal daughter

I fell in love with Natalie Merchant like everyone else in 1988, when 10,000 Maniacs scored its first hit album with In My Tribe.

And who wouldn’t?

She had a distinctive voice, and she penned literate lyrics. In context, she wasn’t Paula Abdul.

But somewhere along the way, audiences forget there were four other members in the band. Hell, Rob Buck’s guitar work probably has a more forceful presence than Merchant’s vocals.

Yet Merchant was the guiding force of the band, and by the time she left 10,000 Manaics, almost everyone perceived her as a solo artist already, relegating the rest of the group to session players.

Myself? I couldn’t contain my joy when I learned Mary Ramsey was taking over as 10,000 Maniacs’ singer.

I didn’t think much would come from Merchant’s solo career, and as it turned out, nothing much has.

So when the first strains of country fiddle opened The House Carpenter’s Daughter, I thought, “Damn, woman — why didn’t you do this sooner?”

The House Carpenter’s Daughter, Merchant’s first album since leaving Elektra, is something of a covers album — the singer performs traditional material throughout.

Merchant still can’t shake off the dour seriousness that saddled most of her post-10KM work, but with the songs she chose for this album, it works to her advantage.

These songs are time tested, so when Merchant reads “Crazy Man Michael” with an overdramatic flair or puts a dash of soul into “Which Side Are You On”, she can stay true to the song as well as to the canon of her work.

Of course, most traditional songs work best when they’re not overly modernized, which The House Carpenter’s Daughter does quite a bit. In that regard, “Weeping Pilgrim”, “Wayfaring Stranger” and “House Carpenter” stand out for letting Merchant service the song instead of vice versa.

One of 10,000 Manaics’ b-sides, a cover of the Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower”, demonstrated Merchant sounded fine being a bit more country, something “Solider Soldier” and “Sally Ann” reinforce.

Merchant sings in a lower key nowadays, and that range has a nice resonance when she’s not mumbling.

In all, The House Carpenter’s Daughter is nice marriage of material with performer. Wish she could have done something this daring a lot sooner.