10,000 MANIACS: MTV UNPLUGGED (1993)
1) These Are The Days; 2) Eat For Two; 3) Candy Everybody Wants; 4) I'm Not The Man; 5) Don't Talk; 6) Hey Jack Kerouac; 7) What's The Matter Here?; 8) Gold Rush Brides; 9) Like The Weather; 10) Trouble Me; 11) Jezebel; 12) Because The Night; 13) Stockton Gala Days; 14) Noah's Dove.
In August 1993, Merchant announced her resignation from 10,000 Maniacs, admittedly because she said she needed more creative freedom — which must have given a serious confidence boost to the other band members, considering that the average Joe must have always thought of the Maniacs as a bunch of backing musicians for Natalie's ego anyway: The Curse of the Frontwoman Dancing Barefoot.
Generously and wisely, the announcement did not take place until the recording, a few months earlier, of 10,000 Maniacs' most satisfying and well-summarizing album — the fact that it took the MTV Unplugged series to trigger it is a little quirky, but, want it or not, the project did yield quite a few excellent results, from Eric Clapton to Alice In Chains; and there are few people who got more lucky out of it than the original Maniacs.
First, the setlist: consistently consistent, with the band concentrating almost exclusively on their «hookiest» songs (bar just one or two soporific numbers from Our Time In Eden, which they did have to promote heavier than the rest, after all). Use this as your introduction to 10,000 Maniacs and you might find yourself easily intrigued and steeped in wonder at why I keep dissing all the studio LPs for lacking interesting ideas. Even the single surprise of the evening, a cover of Springsteen / Patti Smith's 'Because The Night', adding nothing eye-opening to the original, does not take anything away either and is as nicely listenable as everything else.
Second, the setting is very convenient. One might simply want to package all of the studio originals on a Best-Of, or demand a full-blown electric concert album instead — one would be wrong, because at heart all of these guys are folkies, and this is the first time that their sound seems to have soared in a new fit of inspiration ever since they traded in the sharper punk-folk style of the early 1980s in favour of blander overproduction of the second half of the decade. What I mean is — sometimes it is better to go all the way and prove why the «soft» in «soft rock» has any real reason to exist, than to try and mask it with pseudo-rock styles of production. If you're unhip, just come out and say so. MTV Unplugged sort of does, and gets my respect for it.
Third, the atmosphere sort of works wonders attenuating the soft, humble charms of Ms. Natasha. This is, after all, her only official live album with her band, and she sings each song to perfection without ever trying to stick out with some on-the-spot vocal gimmick or to spice up the proceedings with lots of moralistic or simply forced banter (compare Ani DiFranco with her eternal nerve-wrecking giggle whose only purpose is to tell us «yeah, I do have a sense of humor — a stupid sense of humor, perhaps, but at least you will leave this show convinced that I'm not just a man-hating bitch, no matter how much the actual songs make you all feel inferior»). There's grace and loveliness and humility and it all compensates for the boredom and monotonousness.
Can't say, however, that I'm a great fan of this slowed-down, «sensitivized» new reading of 'Eat For Two' — the disturbing paranoia of the original was a much better message than this suddenly appearing aura of melancholic tenderness. But the rest of the songs, from the lovingly crafted guitar hook of 'Like The Weather' to the dark bassoon palette of 'I'm Not The Man', faithfully carry over all of the original good points, for which the band recruits lots of supporting musicians (including, once again, Mary Ramsey, soon to inherit the band from Natalie). Thumbs up without a question — even Republicans might want to add this to their collection, much as Ms. Merchant would want to personally remove all of their internal organs and feed them to Africa's starving children.
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