10,000 MANIACS: CAMPFIRE SONGS: THE POPULAR, OBSCURE & UNKNOWN RECORDINGS (2004)
CD I: 1) Planned Obsolescence; 2) My Mother The War; 3) Tension; 4) Scorpio Rising; 5) Like The Weather; 6) Don't Talk; 7) What's The Matter Here?; 8) Hey Jack Kerouac; 9) Verdi Cries; 10) Trouble Me; 11) Poison In The Well; 12) You Happy Puppet; 13) Eat For Two; 14) Stockton Gala Days; 15) Candy Everybody Wants; 16) These Are Days; 17) Because The Night; CD II: 1) Poppy Selling Man; 2) Can't Ignore The Train (demo); 3) Peace Train; 4) Wildwood Flower; 5) Hello In There; 6) To Sir With Love; 7) Everyday Is Like Sunday; 8) These Days; 9) Hope That I Don't Fall In Love With You; 10) Starman; 11) Let The Mystery Be; 12) Noah's Dove (demo); 13) Circle Dream (alternate lyrics demo); 14) Eden (alternate lyrics demo).
Not to be confused with the Animal Collective album of the same name — which, odd enough, had only just come out one year earlier — this is a 2-CD compilation of assorted 10,000 Maniacs stuff, compiled in strict accordance with the common and abominable principle: «layman gets one half, fan man gets one half, tax man gets to laugh». Meaning, of course, that each of the ten thousand maniac admirers of the band, before buying this, would do better to find an average Joe on the street and convince him to split the deal in half. Only that-a way will everybody be happy. One CD of greatest hits, one CD of obscure demos and outtakes. How else does one manage?
That said, if the split does not happen, the average Joe may still remain pleased, and the average maniac will be comforted by the fact that the second disc is actually very strong — much stronger, in fact, than any average original LP by the band. Both CDs are quite comparable in quality, so that, without any additional information, I doubt that one will be easily able to tell which of the recordings are «popular» and which ones are «obscure».
There is a simple reason behind this, though: the absolute majority of the songs on disc 2 are cover versions, and the Maniacs had always been a credible, trustworthy cover band, specializing in doing justice to source material without ever threatening to improve upon it. Even when they are experimenting — for instance, going wildly Jamaican on David Bowie's 'Starman' — they still sound passionately nice, and when they are not and are just going for the goods, they sound stately and gracious, e. g. 'These Days', which Merchant interprets along the same Gothic lines as Nico used to, but her voice will, of course, be always more palatable to everyone who feels uneasy about Nico's odd-accented iciness. Equally fine are the covers of John Prine, Morrisey and Tom Waits, and there is even a wild two-minute turkey chase fiddle romp as the band rip their way through the Carter Family's 'Wildwood Flower'. Finally, their faith in Cat Stevens is reinstated, as the original cover version of 'Peace Train' once again makes its way onto a 10,000 Maniacs album. Someone just got smarter!
Add to this a couple fun collaborations (a live version of 'To Sir, With Love' with a sentimental duet between Merchant and Michael Stipe, and another duet with David Byrne on Iris DeMent's 'Let The Mystery Be') as well as one excellent original outtake (Merchant's 'Poppy Selling Man', driven by the finest organ riff these guys ever came up with; not the tiniest clue as to what made them keep the song in the vaults all those years), and it really makes you wonder how come they missed their chance at becoming America's hottest shit when they had so much going for them. They could even write good songs — they... sort of... chose not to.
Anyway, if only the first CD were to be replaced with Unplugged, the resulting package would really make for a killer collection of non-overlapping material. On the other hand, if you already know that one album from the Maniacs is your uncrossable threshold, go for Campfire Songs, and do not be afraid of the B-sides and outtakes. Some may say that Natalie Merchant was born into this world to sing 'My Mother The War' and 'Can't Ignore The Train'; I say that she might have equally well been born to remind us of the fine qualities of Cat Stevens, Nico, and John Prine, even if it has to be done through the prism of her own ego. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, really. Thumbs up.
Check "Campfire Songs" (CD) on Amazon