10,000 Maniacs

Chelsea's Fave Rave

Strongest album: In My Tribe
Must to avoid: Hope Chest: The Fredonia Recordings 1982-1983

I used to like this little band, back in my naive days of youth, but I haven't listened to them since my frosh year at the big state college. Like over-testosteroned young boys outgrowing a lot of the heavy metal they headbanged to, eventually earnest collegiate types outgrow modern folk music. Now, as someone who in his latter years has outgrown to various degrees both styles of posing, I speak with a bit of authority (and I bet you didn't figure there'd be a creature out there who outgrew both the Maniacs and Boston, but I bet my experience is true of lots of folks. Go on, admit it, "More Than A Feeling" rocks!). The 10,000 Maniacs seemed almost tailor-crafted to win the souls of the earnest college student crowd, and while there's no crime in that (earnest college girls who just read their first e.e. cummings at the coffeehouse are people, too), given my distance now from the scholarship-liberal sensitive-boy demographic, my taste for this overly polite style of discourse has waned.

Okay, so the Maniacs have several strikes against them: they're too collegiate, too whitebread, too earnest, too mid-tempo and MOR, and way too PC. They're closer in spirit, if not sound, to Pete Seeger than Bob Dylan. Folk music was the dominant music on college campuses, especially women's colleges, until rock'n'roll got all sophisticated and sucked the student movement in. Now I realize that folk - which, let's be honest, has never been the music of the proletariat masses (who prefer politically incorrect stuff like heavy metal, anyway) but rather the province of sweatered college kids - has never gone away, it's just adapted to rock. Heck, look at Tori Amos, or Jewel, or Ani Difranco. 10,000 Maniacs were the '80s best purveyors of the long tradition of collegiate folk rock that began in California with the Byrds and the Jefferson Airplane, unless you count R.E.M., of course. And you know what? They actually made more consistently listenable albums than most of their predecessors! You don't believe me? Then you sit through a Peter, Paul, and Mary album. Simon & Garfunkel might have been better, I suppose, but I haven't heard enough to make that judgement call. Call 10,000 Maniacs a more heavy-handed R.E.M. and that's the closest to a definitive description as you'll get. Which underlines their strengths: a sturdy melodicism (these are folk-rockers), an unfailingly pleasant sound, intelligent lyrics (it will out - folk), and a musical adventurousness that, unfortunately, decreased in direct proportion to their commercial success. There's also one more strike against this band: Natalie Merchant's voice. Say what you will, it's overly mannered and unnecessarily obscures the lyrics. Merchant's voice sounds like some upper-middle class girl faking her "classy" British and French accents at the same time. Mind you, I'm talking about her voice, she's probably a nice person and for all I know isn't snobby at all. Anyway, let's just get to the reviews.

Turns out there are more Maniacs/Merchant pages out there than I expected - browse through this list of 10,000 Maniacs Links.

Human Conflict Number Five EP(1982) **

Believe it or not, the 10,000 Bleeding Heart Liberals began as an avant-garde post-punk band, dabbling in the regatta de blanc stylings current during the early Thatcher years. I bet they bought all five copies of those Gang of Four imports that came into upstate New York. I also bet that, unlike Bill Clinton, they didn't even inhale. And how are you supposed to stew up good reggae if you don't smoke mary jane? Now I'm not advocating pot, I don't smoke it but instead prefer to inflict upon myself the much more damaging demon six pack when I relax on the weekends. I'm just saying that country music is best performed by old drunkards, classical by syphilictic wrecks, jazz by heroin addicts, psychedelic music by acid casualties, and reggae by potheads. I mean, it originated in Jamaica, where they have literally formed a religion based on passing the joint. It's called "Rasta, mon." I think I've gotten sidetracked, but I really don't find these five songs very interesting or accomplished. "Christianity is obsolete," wouldn't go over too well in the Bible Belt.

Reader Comments


Just wanted to respond to your comment that "'Christianity is obsolete' wouldn't go over too well in the Bible Belt." I live in Tulsa, OK - smack dab in the middle of the bible belt buckle, and I thought you might be happy that I would in no way be offended by that statement. I'm an agnostic who regularly attends a Unitarian church, and not much bothers me. Except for the blind hatred so-called "good christians" show toward anyone who is different (i.e. the homosexual community). It's especially a problem here, where I've even encountered serious racism, something that I once thought was long dead. I'm not putting down christianity, or any other religion for that matter; I have many friends who are very religious people, and they use their faith in good ways and I respect them for that. I'm just sick of religion being used as a cheap excuse to hate. Pretty ironic when you think about it.

10, 000 maniacs? Haven't heard any of their albums..... But, MAN, Pavement's new album is great, ain't it?

Secrets of the I Ching (1983) **1/2

You know, the 10,000 Maniacs are what your average West Coast '60s band would have sounded like without the drugs. Not that that's an insult, mind you - remember, those '60s bands were more often than baby boomer propragandists will admit seriously impaired by too much chemical intake. Have you ever really tried to sit through a Jefferson Airplane album? Well, let me ask you this: what's worse than an aging hippie? An aging yippie, that's what! Uh-oh. It seems that Natalie's been listening to Learn Espanol While You Sleep tapes, and maybe some Sanskrit, too. She's also been reading WWI poetry - "Gas, gas!" Where does that quote come from? The first reader to correctly identify which WWI poem that line derives from (hint: the poet died fighting for glorious England) gets a No-Prize.

These first two formative and not entirely listenable efforts have been compiled on the Hope Chest: The Fredonia Recordings 1982-1983, rel. 1990. Again, the compilation is for Maniacs completists only.

The Wishing Chair (1985) ***

Their first serious effort deserves my first serious review. The key reference here is Fairport Convention (and no, that is not original with me, ever single review I have ever read begins by stating this in the first sentence). The sound is cluttered, but the songwriting is generally charming in an Old Colonial way, bringing to mind Olde New Englande minus the Salem Witch Trials. Merchant browses through the attic and finds her grandparents' old love letters, ducks down "Cotton Alley," and the band does a passable imitation of early U2, "My Mother the War." The best song, "Can't Ignore the Train," opens the album, but it's not so strong it overshadows anything else, not even the second best song, "Maddox Table." I like that olde folke instrumentation; there are loads of instruments here I can't identify, making this LP as fun as going to the the local craft fair and watching the old hillbillies perform songs writ before they built the railroad through Germantown. No, wait a minute, going to a craft fair isn't exactly a wild time. But at least it's interesting, isn't it? Gauge your value of this album by how you answer that question.

In My Tribe (1987) ****

This one is their undeniable peak, the LP where it all comes home. It's also a real departure from their previous sound: the folky elements are smoothed over for predictable MOR alternative easy listening rock. However, that's more of an improvement than it sounds, because for once the band has found some instrumental focus and doesn't sound cluttered. It helps that Merchant's songs and melodies have never been better (before or since). Musically the band plays it safe, creating a distinctive backdrop for each track but somehow winding up with a rather uniform sound anyway, so let's talk about the lyrics. Merchant tackles child abuse, Jack Kerouac, seasonal depression, illiteracy, a friend who writes from the Mojave Desert, alcoholism, a Cat Stevens cover, militarism, a sister's marriage, mercy me the ecology (Mikey Stipey duets), Los Angeles (oh so cleverly entitled "City of Angels"), and a tortured classical composer who probably was a dirty drug addict with syphilis he picked up from a cheap 19th century whore and treated his family like swine in the name of art, but don't tell Natalie that, it'll probably ruin her day.

Blind Man's Zoo (1989) ***

The album title is an obvious alusion to the New Wave novelty hit, "A Blind Man's Penis," by Zoogz Rift (I am not making this up). Nah, probably not. Anyway, this is In My Tribe, Pt. II, and as you'd predict, not nearly as enjoyable. The band sounds exactly the same as before, with Natalie only changing her lyrics a little bit so she can tackle some different social issues. Like the nice liberal she is, she just wants to enlighten folks on various topical problems. I've nothing against nice liberals, mind you - I'm probably one myself, in fact. I just wish she had more focus - she'd be more effective that way. As is, she seems to just be going down a list of social problems - "Oh, I read in the paper that colonialism's bad. Have I written a song about that subject? Can do!" And we also hear her thoughts on teen pregnancy, lotteries, pollution, Iran-Contra, among other contemporary issues, all of which are important to readers of The Nation. "Hateful Hate," is pretty damn redundant, though.

Our Time In Eden (1992) ***

Merchant must have decided that she'd done her share of propragandizing, so she crafts a set of lyrics for this album that for the most part aren't overtly political. I said for the most part - "Candy Everybody Wants," wags its finger at us greedy homo sapiens, "I'm Not the Man," condemns lynch mobs, and guess what the message of "Tolerance" is. The band itself ditches some of the uniformity that plagued the last two releases and gets a bit more experimental again, which is gratifying, but not all that satisfying. The horns are intrusive, and as a Motown diva Merchant makes for a great folk singer. And she's not that convincing as a "Jezebel," either. She is convincing giving advice to a youngster in "How You've Grown," though. After this album Merchant split from the band to find even greater success as a solo artist.

MTV Unplugged (1993)

I can see the sense in, say, Slayer unplugged. But the 10,000 Maniacs? It's redundant - not as much as the Indigo Girls unplugged, but getting warm. Also contributed to the unfortunate Patti Smith revival with a song Bruce Springsteen wrote, "Because the Night."

Love Among the Ruins (1997)

Love her or hate her, Natalie's the frontperson in this band, and without her personality the 10,000 Maniacs are like the Velvet Underground without Lou Reed or the Doors without Jimbo (both of which foolishly released albums anyway). I heard a bland cover of Roxy Music's "More Than This" in the supermarket. It's nice that the Maniacs read Walker Percy - now talk about an underrated American writer, the best Mississippian since Faulkner.

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