Review Summary: 10,000 Maniacs hit their creative peak as guitarist Robert Buck steps out of the shadows of John Lombardo to help craft their most accessible and well-known album.
The first question you might have clicking this review is "who are 10,000 Maniacs and where have I heard of them from?". Good question indeed, as this band are among those whose name strikes somewhat of a bell playing; but thinking about the bands music makes a muted note. Amid the rise of jangle pop and college students listening to alternative rock, the Maniacs became part of the scene with then-unknown singer Natalie Merchant who paired with guitarist John Lombardo to make the folk-pop tunes. They released 2 albums prior to getting signed by major label, Elektra.
Since they signed to Elektra in 1985, the popularity of 10,000 maniacs was still limited to college campuses and their student-ran radio stations. Their first release on a major label, The Wishing Chair
, did not fair well critically and did not garner much airtime. After release of said album, the band's co-leader, John Lombardo, left the band. In the face of this, they released In My Tribe
, which would go on to be the biggest album. With songwriting in place and the time of the era of jangle pop rising (thanks to contemporaries R.E.M. and The Bangles), In My Tribe
stayed on the Billboard top 200 chart for 70+ weeks, and as of 1998 has reached double platinum status. Despite the airplay and record sales it achieved, The Maniacs and In My Tribe
are still horribly and undeservedly overlooked. Through the loss of Lombardo, roughly half of the band's songwriting became lost. This loss only set the stage for the emergence of the writing abilities of the band's other guitarist, Robert Buck, as mainly he and Merchant wrote the popular and standout songs of the album.
The record kicks off their their highest-reaching single (hitting #9 on Billboard Modern Rock Tracks) What's the Matter Here
, and right off the bat you can tell that the void left by Lombardo has been properly filled. The song broadcasts a character who witnesses child abuse, and though not directly getting involved, still voices his/her disapproval of the situation. Strong lyrics like this give the album a good early push, and sweet soloing by Buck highlight the bridge of the piece make it a very listenable song. The songwriting continue their dynamic chemistry on the tune, Hey Jack Kerouac
. This is of course a song about the iconic 50's beatnik and author, Jack Kerouac. In this song the rest of the album really seems to introduce itself, the bass plays a big role in playing under the beginning guitar. The Maniacs do a good job of making all their instruments part of the tune and able to be heard, the production of this album also aides that effort. Near the end of the number, Merchant lets her singing ability be known by not only keeping up with the song and contributing to its easy to listen to ability, but turning "say" into "say-ay-ay-ay-ay". Smooth move Merchant.
In continuing with the big 3 songs that introduce this album so well and make it so notable, Like the Weather
takes a break from the strong themes previously highlighted, and focus more on the instruments. The lyrics of the song continue the perspective of the first person that has been in effect for the whole album. Loneliness is now the theme being used, coloring the sky "coal grey" and making the time a "cold and rainy day". This number provides a great listen on cold and rainy days, but can be listened to anytime thanks to the improved guitar work of Buck and the rest of the band and their respected instruments.
The feeling that the piece takes a folk/pop approach to make songs about national problems is one that is certainly given off by the theme of the lyrics and flows in the tradition of folk protest songs. The difference is that these don't specifically mention any names of places, but rather tells general tales of the problems and it lets its listeners fill in the blanks about the problem. Why mention protest when this is a pop album featuring Natalie Merchant and folk musicians you ask? The 7th song on the album, "Peace Train" is a well-done Cat Stevens cover. The significance of the song being on there is not the main element in the protest feel to this work. In 1989, Cat Stevens had converted to Islam, and by that year had his name changed to Yusuf Islam. He had made comments that year supporting Ayatollah Khomeini, a big time opponent of the United States. Because of this, and the relating anti Cat Stevens propaganda, the cover of his song was removed from the album. While is may be off the U.S. version of the album, the band made the song available on their 2-CD best of album, Campfire Songs
Additions to the albums basic setup help the album by coloring the later songs with lush melodies and harmonies. One of these tunes is Campfire Songs
which you might expect to be played at a campfire due to its well structured simplicity, but you would not expect to hear it due to its added instruments and 80's singers. The instrument added is keyboard which morphs to a warm sounding music machine, helping introduce the song and end it. In this song, wait, who is that dueting with Merchant? Why it's R.E.M.
singer Michael Stipe (did he have hair? really?)! This is one of the more melody mentioning numbers, and not one made popular with socially significant lyrics.
In retrospect, the rising popularity of the band generated by this disc would not be too strong holding. Their followup, Blind Man's Zoo
did not achieve anything close to the exposure that In My Tribe
did. While the next step was a disappointment, the current one was a big success and very deserving of a review on Sputnik. If a soundtrack about goddamn Pac-Man
gets 2 reviews, this should have 12. Oh well, one day.
Whats the Matter Here?
Hey Jack Kerouac
Like the Weather
Campfire Song (even more so if you're a R.E.M. fan)