"Well its time to start let's say hi to Natalie [Merchant] and 10,000 Maniacs"
Releasing a live album can help your band in many ways. It can serve as a compilation of the group's previous work all put onto a single disc, it can introduce the live element to the quality of the group, but in 10,000 Maniacs case, the MTV added exposure helped them gain fans and put their soft jangle pop out to the kids. Sure their music was happening when the television company were just establishing themselves before featured animation shows would do that; inviting big time artists to perform "unplugged" live for the network concerts which would turn into television episodes. Stars such as Nirvana, Eric Clapton, and even Bob Dylan would go on to appear on this show, but probably being the lowest publicized act outside of college radio, 10,000 Maniacs did not have a mainstream presence. While this album did not kick them directly into the mainstream, it did help them out by making their music available to the MTV crowd and presenting it the way it was made, using Merchant's lush and versatile voice with the folk guitar styling of the late Robert Buck.
Although the publicity was gathering, the band was past its true prime and basically on its way out. Merchant appears on this album, but at the time of its release she had been gone from the band for months, The added feeling that this release would be their true swan song adds to the mood; the sadness expressed on "Eat for Two"
, the melodic and sweet vocals put down for the opener "These Are Days"
and the somber romantic feeling taken from the original Patti Smith
tune, "Because The Night"
. While it takes the main positives from, this album is not entirely seen and performed by Merchant, indeed the spotlight works for two, as Robert Buck lets out a great performance, including improvised melodies and fills that completes the album. At the time of its release, the Unplugged album was following the band's last regular album; Our Time In Eden
, which is evidenced by much of the track list being taken from that effort, though the presence of past hits is still intact. As it would be with the show being such a big deal, the sound plays out as very clear and polished sounding. Though this in a way limits the band and doesn't excite old fans who are used to the more rougher sounding days, it does add a world of added accessibility and clarity to new listeners. What comes from this effort is a focused and fitting last hurrah for the band.
Things begin with where the band left off on their previous effort, "These Are Days
starts off the effort with a sound many fans of the band are used to. Acoustic guitars and piano lead the instrument section, with the piano turning into pump organ in the gaps of silence between verses. violist Mary Ramsey lets her voice be heard as she not only plays the instrument but sings backup and harmonizes with Merchant at times. The soft sound is welcomed very warmly and the show if off to a good start. The next tune is taken from the beginner of Blind Man's Zoo
, namely "Eat for Two
". s part of the sound shows Buck fade into the background and take the role accompanies. Who does he cater to? Richie Stearns on banjo and the introduction of Jerry Marotta on drums for starters. This is much less full and more slow and grounded out (just like the album its on); it still has its good points (re: singing) but does not follow up the opener well. A problem with the band is how some of their slower songs turn schmaltzy and long-winded. Though still present, they do not let it get in the way of the entire show though.
After a string of a mixed song selection, things get into the theme of best songs released on one album being "Don't Talk"
, "Hey Jack Kerouac"
, and "Whats the Matter Here"
all off of In My Tribe
. the addition of a live piano pays dividends immediately it seems, Amanda Kramer does a superb job of accenting the normally smaller sound of the songs. It is not only her though, the additional musicians really seem to add to the sound overall; things like cello solos played by famed cellist Jane Scarpantoni (who also does arrangements for R.E.M.
and Adam Green
) and twin (though they're not physically twins) bassoon players enrich the songs and give them quality live renditions.
They were a great band lacking only a compilation, and that's what this CD served as until the release of Campfire Songs
in 2004. Transitioning from the usual out in the country area where you would expect to hear these tunes to the on the small stage sound given to you by this, it didn't matter where they played as their catchy songs with socially charged lyrics would follow.
Note: the introduction to "Gold Rush Brides" is taken from Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey by Lillian Schlissel