10,000 MANIACS: IN MY TRIBE (1987)
1) What's The Matter Here?; 2) Hey Jack Kerouac; 3) Like The Weather; 4) Cherry Tree; 5) The Painted Desert; 6) Don't Talk; 7) Gun Shy; 8) My Sister Rose; 9) A Campfire Song; 10) City Of Angels; 11) Verdi Cries.
This is where 10,000 Maniacs definitively become the backing act behind Natalie Merchant. With John Lombardo out of the band, she gets around 30% more songwriting credits, and if previously it could seem like the lyrics and the music were created independently of each other, or, even more radically, like some of the lyrics were just randomly thrown on to pre-written and arranged backing tracks, now it is the opposite: most of the songs feel constructed around Natalie's ever more aspiring, self-assured, and moralistic verbal paintings.
Musically speaking, there is little to speak of. 'Like The Weather' has a beautiful ascending riff, a cozy little melodic invention that, unfortunately, happens to be an unreachable peak for all the other songs. To be utterly fair, though, it's not like R.E.M., generally considered a far greater band than the Maniacs, had a great amount of unique melodies. You can't get really far away, after all, if you are usually content to stay within the folksy-jangly formula. And for some bands, it is preferable to stay within that formula — the attempt to mess around with Mexican rhythms on 'My Sister Rose' really comes across as corny; if the intended effect was to lighten up the generally somber attitude of the record, they couldn't have miscalculated worse. Or, perhaps, the effect was to show how much they suck at faking gaiety, so be happy now that we're back to our usual state of morose judge-ment-ality.
These days, when liberalism, political correctness, and active-cause-support are almost a sine qua non of all «respectable» music acts (up yours, Ted Nugent!), it is sort of hard to take seriously a record that almost literally reads as an in-yer-face manifesto of all these things. Very little is veiled even thinly, as Merchant takes on child abusers (track 1), the issue of illiteracy (track 4), army problems (track 7), capitalist greed (track 9), and then moves on to scale truly Biblical heights (the last two tracks that seem to already transcend the problems of humanity). But, on the other hand, every type of young brain in every generation needs to learn about these things, and not everyone can be bothered to read Charles Dickens instead of easily-listening to 'Campfire Song' (a collaboration between the Maniacs and Michael Stipe, by the way).
Plus, the more this girl is in the business, the more charisma she is able to raise: her singing has now become fully confident, yet at the same time intelligently restrained — a great benefit, setting her apart from the punky female crowd attitude that would be soon reshaping itself into the Riot Grrrl approach. The charm of 'What's The Matter Here?', for instance, is not in the fact that, technically, Merchant refuses to give a definitive answer to the question of whether or not one has a moral right to report the abusive behaviour of the parents in your neighbourhood; she is not so much refusing to do it as scorning all those who refuse. The charm is that, as much anger as there is in the song, she does not give it away. When performing these blasting accusations live, she'd be prancing around the microphone as if the song in question were 'Let's Go To The Hop' (and technically, her prancing is awful, choreographed the way a two-year old girl dances to her Sesame Street tape — but intentional, I guess). It looks and feels odd — but, somehow, right.
Of course, there is always Robert Buck, who consistently saves all the songs, one by one, with an endless variation of same-but-different takes on the folk jangle, sometimes going U2-ish on the louder numbers ('Don't Talk'). So it is a perfectly healthy listen up until 'Verdi Cries', on which Merchant is left all alone with a piano and a chamber string section, a track that is a mighty fan favorite but, to me, sounds like a second-rate Elton John imitation — the same type of epic piano ballad, only without the patented hook in the chorus (certainly the la-la-la's don't count). Lyrics are good, but the song just goes to show that, at this point at least, Natalie without her boys is still a musical non-entity.
As impressively as R.E.M.'s best material seems to have outlived its time, In My Tribe remains chained to its epoch, and is unlikely to inspire new generations. But as a curious and moving document of that epoch, it deserves salvation — and then again, there are always those who prefer clear, clean, ringing-out girl singing to the mumble-grumble of Michael Stipe. So thumbs up anyway, and then it's up to you the tight-collared college-rock lover to make your choice. Ooh, fun fact, almost forgot: apparently there used to be a decent cover of Cat Stevens' 'Peace Train' on this album, but once the band learned of Mr. Yusuf Islam's approval of the Salman Rushdie fatwa, they pulled it off all subsequent releases. Up yours, too, Mr. Islam. Should have known better in 1971 than to write silly peace anthems instead of doing the RIGHT thing. And how are you going to keep up your Al-Qaeda contributions now, without these much needed royalties from 10,000 Maniacs' albums? :)
Check "In My Tribe" (MP3) on Amazon