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.