Striving to preserve the kinds of songs that "teach us about what we know in our hearts," Natalie Merchant presents here 11 songs of traditional and contemporary folk music. Merchant's handpicked song choices run the gamut of the 20th century, with seven traditional tunes and four covers. The covers are an eclectic mix: the Waterboys-esque Horseflies song "Sally Ann" (ex-Horseflies Judy Hyman and Richie Stearns provide violin and banjo throughout the album), Florence Reece's coalminer hymn "Which Side Are You On?," Fairport Convention's gothic parable "Crazy Man Michael," and the Carter Family's love-lost weeper "Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow." From the track listing, one would expect a somber blend of acoustic instruments and dreamy vocals, but Merchant and company kick out the folk jams more often than not, and Merchant's bright production and energetic arrangements keep the pace lively. As befits the preservational nature of the project, Merchant's annotated liner notes give rhyme and reason to each selection. Reading about the harrowing genesis of "Which Side Are You On?" adds a wealth of poignancy and power to its message. But that's not to suggest that The House Carpenter's Daughter is an overly academic work, as the material varies enough in theme, tone, and rhythm as much as any of Merchant's preceding solo endeavors. Indeed it's actually quite refreshing to hear Merchant's voice consistently wrapped around a bold pedal steel guitar, a weeping fiddle, a rolling banjo, and gentle accordion undertones. Those weary of the traditional nature of the album needn't worry much, as rock textures hover around many a corner, percolating violently on "Diver Boy" before exploding fully on the humorous jumping-rope song "Soldier, Soldier." At turns slow, hazy, and beautiful and at other turns bounding with folk hoedowns, The House Carpenter's Daughter is a delightful exploration of Merchant's folk inspirations. Whether a listener is a folk newcomer or a die-hard folkie, or even a Merchant fanatic or not, this is an album bursting with delights. It proves Merchant's liner-notes theories about the power of folk music again and again.
AllMusic Review by Tim DiGravina