After rising to fame at the helm of the popular folk-rock band 10,000 Maniacs, Natalie Merchant enjoyed even greater success as a solo artist during the mid-'90s. Her literate, socially conscious songs established her among the preeminent women in pop music, while her solo debut – 1995's Tigerlily – helped pave the way for a number of female performers in a pre-Lilith Fair market. She continued releasing albums well into the 2000s, often examining specific genres or subjects, although Tigerlily remained her biggest-selling record…
The collection comprises ten discs, including all eight of her solo studio albums from the past three decades; Butterfly, a new studio set featuring four new songs and six reinterpreted selections from her catalog, all arranged for string quartet; and Rarities, a collection of fifteen rare and previously unreleased tracks recorded between 1998 and 2017, which offers a unique view of Merchant's creative experimentation through home studio demos, album outtakes, live tracks, and collaborations with diverse artists like Billy Bragg, David Byrne, The Chieftains, Cowboy Junkies, and Amy Helm.
Teaming up with T-Bone Burnett was a good, healthy move for Natalie Merchant. She had begun to sink into vaguely tuneless singer/songwriterisms with her second solo album, Ophelia, and the sag in artistic quality was notable – which may have been why she bought time with a live album in 1999. Burnett helps restore some musical backbone to her music on Motherland, even if the record is hardly a gritty affair (apart from Merchant's voice, which seems to have deepened and grown tougher since the last time out). Still, there's some character within the sound – atmospheric, blues post-folk-rock, music that breathes – not nearly as precious as Tigerlily or any of the 10,000 Maniacs' records, for that matter, while retaining Merchant's signature sound. Upon first listen, none of the songs announce themselves, yet it all sticks together, and repeated plays reveal Motherland as a subtle grower that will satisfy her large cult.
Natalie Merchant is marketed as the successor to 2001's Motherland, suggesting it's Merchant's first album since, but that isn't strictly true. She independently released a collection of folk covers called The House Carpenter's Daughter in 2003 and, most notably, the ambitious double-disc neo-children's album Leave Your Sleep in 2010 – distinctive work both but she hasn't dedicated herself fully to original material in 13 years, so Natalie Merchant is indeed noteworthy. Feeling neither pent-up nor fussy, the eponymous album is handsome, deliberate, and familiar; she's not picking up where she left off, she's merely resuming her career, not acting like any time or fashion has passed in her absence.
After a full decade of lying in limbo, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened its doors in the fall of 1995. To celebrate the event, a mammoth concert was staged at the Hall of Fame, featuring a head-spinning array of rock stars and musicians.