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Friday, February 25, 2011

10,000 Maniacs: The Wishing Chair


1) Can't Ignore The Train; 2) Scorpio Rising; 3) Just As The Tide Was A Flowing; 4) Lilydale; 5) Back O' The Moon; 6) Maddox Table; 7*) The Colonial Wing; 8) Grey Victory; 9) Among The Americans; 10) Everyone A Puzzle Lo­ver; 11) Cotton Alley; 12*) Daktari; 13) My Mother The War; 14) Tension Makes A Tangle; 15) Arbor Day.

Recording for Elektra Records now, with Joe Boyd as producer — upon first sight, an excellent choice, considering his immaculate folk-rock pedigree (The Incredible String Band, Fairport Con­vention, Nick Drake, Maria Muldaur, you name it). Real improvements, though? A few. Natalie Merchant is slowly, but steadily learning to sing (as in, «draw out vowels for a short extra length of time, sometimes raising or lowering the pitch»). Keyboard player Dennis Drew is given a little more breathing space, sometimes even a chance to solo (nice organ work on 'Just As The Tide Was A Flowing'). And overall, the sound is, of course, fuller and denser than it used to be.

Elsewhere, the approach remains the same — so much so that the band has even carried over some of its supposedly best tunes from I Ching; 'Grey Victory', 'Daktari', and 'My Mother The War' are sometimes said to have been re-recorded for this album, but they sound completely iden­tical on my copies — the only real re-recording is 'Tension', now called 'Tension Makes A Tangle' and truly sounding much better, due to a much more self-confident (and just plain loud) delivery from Merchant.

The bad news is that they still haven't figured out how to write songs, and yet are already ready to mellow out a bit, loosening the rhythm section and too often misusing the talents of Robert Buck. The latter, now that Joe Boyd himself has recognized him as a folk player, happily hauls out the mandolin, an instrument which is usually great for providing counter-melodies and extra flouri­shes, but is too medievalistic to carry a good hook, if you know what I mean. And there is a man­dolin track here on at least half of the songs, I think, sometimes with accordeon to boot.

Yet we cannot really fault the producer, because he clearly has no intention of spoiling the band's vibe — on the contrary, he just wants to clean it up. In fact, given that the band was signed by an English manager and recorded their major label debut in London with a famous British producer, the idea could have been to establish some sort of cross-Atlantic alternative to R.E.M. — despite the fact that all the band members were American, there is a lot of subtle «Britishness» around The Wi­shing Chair, from Merchant's angry anti-colonial ode ('The Colonial Wing', originally a B-side, now part of the album) to straightahead immersions into Anglo-Saxon folk history ('Just As The Tide...' — a rearrangement of a traditional tune).

The overall sound is still classy and pleasant, and the tempos are still generally upbeat, helping to overcome the lack of instantly captivating melodies. Given time, the loudest of these, e. g. 'Scor­pio Rising', will start penetrating the spirit; as usual, one needs to scrape Merchant's residue off the ears though — her presence may have improved, but it is still blocking the music rather than supporting it; and her lyrics may have become more coherent and «tolerably intellectual», but there is still no serious incentive to start analysing them seriously, no matter how serious are the particular problems she is singing about.

Word of the day is «transitional» — the band makes it into the big leagues, but does not yet pro­perly learn to behave in these leagues. Definitely not a record to be used as one's introduction to the stern joys of 1980's college rock.

Check "The Wishing Chair" (CD) on Amazon


  1. Didn't R.E.M. record 'Fables Of The Reconstruction the same year, also in London, and also being produced by Joe Boyd?
    Granted 'Fables' was probably R.E.M.'s least English sounding record yet, but even so, one suspects someone must have followed the other (they weren't even on the same label or anything).

  2. Ha, I missed that detail.

    It actually makes things even more interesting, since both albums are said to have been recorded in the spring, and both in the same Livingstone studios.

  3. You reviews make me seem like a Natalie Merchant fanboy. I'm somewhat unsettled by that...