10,000 MANIACS: SECRETS OF THE I CHING (1983)
1) Grey Victory; 2) Poor De Chirico; 3) Death Of Manolete; 4) Tension; 5) Daktari; 6) Pit Viper; 7) Katrina's Fair; 8) The Latin One; 9) National Education Week; 10) My Mother The War.
There are two kinds of people who may piss themselves silly over the classic sound and style of 10,000 Maniacs: the Natalie Merchant fan and the Robert Buck fan. Right from the start I will proclaim that I tend to gravitate towards the latter, hold no animosity towards the former, but cannot distinctly acknowledge myself as either. So the Maniacs, after all, are not my cup of tea. But they, too, have their strange place in history.
Secrets Of The I Ching is, as its name so bluntly tells us, sung entirely in Chinese and boldly promises to succeed where so many professional and eminent Sinologists of the past have met their final destiny. The blending of traditional Southeast Asian motives and instruments with the New Wave standards of the time is an interesting and well-rewarding move, and if only all of us knew what the hell the band is singing about...
...okay, now that I've actually heard the record, it's really none of that. Robert Buck and John Lombardo on guitars, Steve Gustafson on bass, Dennis Drew on keyboards, and Jerry Augustyniak on drums mostly just play unassuming, rhythmic, almost danceable folk-pop, close in attitude to early R.E.M., over which a 20-year-old, but already not-so-hot, Natalie Merchant sings or, more correctly, «melodically recites» something that may or may not be considered poetry.
The band's debut, which sounds like it was written, recorded, and mixed in about two hours' time (but don't worry, most of this band's music gives that impression), together with a short preceding EP (Human Conflict Number Five), originally came out on a small indie label, cheerfully called Christian Burial Music, and quite soon became all but completely unavailable until the two were eventually combined on one 1990 CD called Hope Chest: The Fredonia Recordings 1982-1983. It is not, however, a typical case of «early immature crap»: I see nothing in these tunes that makes them that much inferior to the band's hit years to come.
Frankly speaking, for quite some time I saw nothing in these tunes at all. But the reason was plain: like so many others, I made the mistake of concentrating too much on the importance of Natalie Merchant's persona. And taking a serious liking to this lady is a stark exercise in voluntary auto-washing of the brain. She has a technically nice, but never ever special voice with a very limited range (if any; she would get a little better with the years, but even her biggest admirers will have to admit that vocalizing is not her main strength). Her «poetry» is competent, I guess, but just as most male rock poets have a hard time beating the standards once set by Dylan, so do female rock poets have an equally hard time beating Joni Mitchell, and besides, this is music, not words, that we are supposed to be getting. Finally, her attitude — self-righteous, deadly serious, and so often bent on generic liberal moralizing — is just plain annoying. Did we, in 1983, really need another naïve, but pretentious 20-year old reminding us about the horrors of atomic warfare ('Grey Victory')? I wouldn't be surprised were I to find out that the band took special care that a brand new copy of the album, along with a notarially certified Russian translation of the lyrics, be FedExed to Yuri Andropov in person.
But it all changes once you realize that the major creative force behind the Maniacs is never really Merchant. No, the best thing about this band, the one saving grace that prevents it from being forever dated as Eighties' college rock radio fodder is the guitar playing of Robert Buck and John Lombardo. Buck, in particular, is every bit the equal of his namesake Peter (what is it with Eighties' folk-pop-post-punk and awesome guitar players named Buck?), tossing out not particularly catchy, but extremely nice-sounding riffs, now turning to Byrds-y jangle, now to distortion-less post-punk chainsaw, now to wah-wah-emphasized whoos and whees: the «Johnny Marr» effect to Merchant's clumsy Morriseyisms, even if the band's first EP preceded the Smiths' debut by a good two years.
It also helps that most songs move along at a nice pace. The fast tempos quench any attempts that Natalie might make at actually singing the lyrics rather than scattering them all over the place in jagged, disconnected syntagms, but they are the album's only chance at avoiding plunging the listener into a general state of lethargy — were all of this reduced to slow balladry, not even the guitarists' talents could have done anything, because they sure as hell can play, but even surer is the fact that not a single member of this band can write a memorable tune to save Natalie Merchant's life. As it is, it's just a joy listening to these quirky little blasts of notes that they give out, no matter how derivative or even how out-of-place they could be.
For the record, the band's idea of «diversity» is to change, occasionally, from the standard «fast post-punk» formula to ska ('The Latin One'), reggae ('Poor De Chirico', 'National Education Week'), calypso ('Daktari'), and even rough disco ('Pit Viper') — not bad, and it helps, but it's not like they do any of these genres any better than they do their primary schtick. 'Grey Victory' and 'My Mother The War', bookmarking the record, are still the best examples of what these guys can do. Maybe it wouldn't have been a bad idea to dump the vocalist altogether — after a few listens and a newly-gained appreciation for all the guitar work, I have learned to tolerate Merchant, but to believe that she may be one of the album's assets is completely out of the question. At this juncture at least, 10,000 Maniacs could just as easily hire an assistant professor from the Berkeley College of Letters and Science in her place — granted, that would have cost 'em.