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Pre-In the Cut Meg Ryan notwithstanding, it’s tough being an ingénue when you’re 40. Natalie Merchant kept the earnest-college-girl-next-door concession going into her 30s, first with 10,000 Maniacs and then as a solo artist, Nation contributor, and poster child for the Utne Reader set. Of course, such schtick has its limits even for the youngsters: When Merchant declared, “I must be one of the wonders of God’s own creation” on her 1995 solo album, Tigerlily, more than one listener suspected she believed it a little too much. And if lyrics like those gave the lie to the publicity description of Tigerlily as “humble and understated,” so did some of its aesthetic choices. With the triphop rhythms and world-weary imagery of “Carnival,” Merchant transformed herself from Joan Baez wannabe to Mighty Aphrodite. The singer’s next tour, which opened with her shimmying silhouette projected onto a scrim, ushered in a few years of soul and strut before 2001’s Motherland signaled a new stage. The House Carpenter’s Daughter, Merchant’s debut on her own label after a 16-year relationship with Elektra, signals another, positing the singer as heir not only to Baez, but also to Alan Lomax. She presents a selection of undeniably folky favorites, from Florence Reece’s inspiring ’30s protest song “Which Side Are You On?” to the delicate old hymn “Weeping Pilgrim.” Every choice adds dimension to the Merchant we already know: “Soldier, Soldier,” propelled by Graham Maby’s ballsy bass, turns a jump-rope rhyme into an after-hours boogie; “Sally Ann,” by New York folk-rockers the Horseflies, and “Crazy Man Michael,” by their British counterpart, Fairport Convention, do more than pay homage to Merchant’s inspirationsthey’re as deep and loving as a young woman in her grandmother’s wedding gown. They rock a little, too, and Merchant takes full advantage of the Horseflies connection by lacing the album with Judy Hyman’s fiddle and Richie Stearns’ banjo. Sure, those who sneered back in the Maniacs days will probably groan, “O Brother!” and label this just another career move. But for those of us who’ve prized Merchant’s womanly altoand even, God help us, believed the Sincerity Thing was really sincereThe House Carpenter’s Daughter is not only a wise choice, but a winning one. Pamela Murray Winters