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* * 1/2 NATALIE MERCHANT "Motherland" \o7 Elektra

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November 25, 2001|Richard Cromelin

Merchant delivers the ominous warning of "This House Is on Fire" with startling vehemence, setting the tone for perhaps her most potent three-song stretch since her 10,000 Maniacs days.

On this album-opening triad, she and co-producer T Bone Burnett concoct exotic framings packed with flavor and surprises. "House" is an odd Mideast-meets-reggae blend, while in "Saint Judas," fuzzed-out electric guitar holds the center before suddenly vanishing, leaving only a shuffling drum, a spare banjo picking the traditional lament "Cuckoo," and Merchant's transported refrain, "There's no greater evil than the darkness in your heart."

Merchant's third solo studio album holds a few more notable moments, but most of it slips into her familiar comfort zone. A formality bordering on primness marks arrangements and vocals, robbing her comments on social and romantic wrongdoers of their needed urgency.

"Golden Boy," a moody condemnation of a killer-turned-celebrity, and "Henry Darger," an orchestrated sketch of a reclusive "outsider" artist who depicted young girls at war with sadistic adults, stand out in this less compelling company. Merchant plays Royce Hall on Tuesday.

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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