While Natalie Merchant has long been accurately described as an evocative, emotionally charged tunesmith and performer, calling her previous work "soulful" would be a stretch; there's always been an i

While Natalie Merchant has long been accurately described as an evocative, emotionally charged tunesmith and performer, calling her previous work "soulful" would be a stretch; there's always been an intangible X-factor missing that left her music effective but squeaky clean. On Motherland, though, she and co-producer T-Bone Burnett let the grit settle between the tracks. As a result, many of the songs—even a few of the softer acoustic numbers—retain the live, rough edges of a demo. Such a raw instrumental environment apparently pushed Merchant over the vocal edge. She has never sounded so earthy, so bluesy, so soulful. She tackles rock-edged cuts like "Saint Judas" and "Build a Levee" with the confidence and sultry sass of an R&B diva, while continuing to move comfortably through more recognizable fare, like the single "Just Can't Last."—LF

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