Natalie Merchant Motherland

For the past decade, Merchant seemed destined to be another Sting, leaving a good band only to make boring music for massage parlours and waiting rooms. Her 1999 live album showed more promise than either of her studio solo albums, and now Motherland should welcome home fans of Merchant's earlier work. With her best music lyrics and melodies in ages, Merchant hooks up with producer T-Bone Burnett and the rhythm section of Graham Maby (Joe Jackson) and Matt Chamberlain (Tori Amos) to give her songs some extra punch. It's still fairly adult contemporary stuff, but always soulful and never cheesy. Merchant's astute social consciousness is front and centre, occasionally making for pleasantly uneasy listening, like on the leadoff "This House is On Fire." Motherland is Merchant's best work in years, plus it's impossible to dislike the subject of the beautiful cover photo. (Elektra)