10,000 MANIACS: LOVE AMONG THE RUINS (1997)
1) Rainy Day; 2) Love Among The Ruins; 3) Even With My Eyes Closed; 4) Girl On A Train; 5) Green Children; 6) A Room For Everything; 7) More Than This; 8) Big Star; 9) You Won't Find; 10) All That Never Happens; 11) Shining Light; 12) Across The Fields.
Here must it be said that, after leaving the band in 1986, co-founder Jon Lombardo refocused his attention on a new project — the neo-folk duo «John & Mary», along with classically trained violinist Mary Ramsey. With John & Mary regularly opening live sets for the Maniacs, it was only a matter of time before they started guesting in the studio, particularly Mary with her violin contributions to Our Time In Eden. And then it was only a matter of time before John was back in the band — and then along comes Mary, and did she ever want to be a steady chick... uh, sorry, wrong band.
No matter how hard it were to believe this from time to time, 10,000 Maniacs were a band, not a faceless vehicle behind Natalie Merchant's personality — and, by all means, they were not responsible for her departure, so there could hardly be any ethical question about their right to carry on. There could be a question of whether they would remain the same old boring 10,000 Maniacs, or perhaps profit from the occasion by incorporating elements of grindcore and acid jazz. They did not, and fans were relieved to still hear the same middle-of-the-road tepidness.
Nevertheless, Mary Ramsey still managed to bring on huge changes. Politics and social consciousness have been more or less expurgated from the lyrics and the vibe. From now on, the Maniacs would be just a folk-rock act — singing light, friendly, comfortable fare about stars, hearts, shining lights, fields, grasshoppers, and fucking in the barn. (Okay, that last one is merely surmised). You want environmental concern and liberal propaganda — off you go to follow Merchant and her solo endeavours. This band is bound for the music-only train now.
Not only for this, but also out of some sort of general disenchantment reviewers generally fell upon Mary Ramsey, condemning her for lacking the spirit, the fire, the passion, the dedication, the blah blah blah of Merchant. All of this was true, but hardly a proper pretext for criticism; Mary is simply different, a quiet, humble, seemingly introvert performer who, nevertheless, obviously loves this kind of music and has the proper combination of grace, intelligence, loveliness, and vocal training to be suited to it. Never ever pretending to possess even a tenth part of Merchant's rowdy personality, I can still see how it would be possible to like her overall approach even more, particularly if one cherishes humility in art above posturing.
The problem with Love Among The Ruins is definitely not Mary Ramsey — it is the ongoing inability of the band to create music that would rise one hair-width above «pleasant background». 'Rainy Day' is an A-grade, hopeful kick-starter, mainly because of its clever use of silence to introduce the vocal hook, but after that, they only come relatively close with 'Green Children', an epic retelling of an old legend about a pair of alien children (almost by chance falling upon a fine chord progression in the chorus), and then with a more than adequate cover of Roxy Music's 'More Than This' — predictably, they cannot beat the original (it would be impolite towards the lady to begin comparing her range and strength with that of Bryan Ferry), but they do not spoil it, either, and, frankly, at this point I'd rather hear them do lots of covers of good songs than pile up the world's stores of mediocrity by continuing to write their own ones.
Still, it almost feels cruel to give this new version of the band a negative rating. With the guitars, violins, and pianos sounding so nice, and Mary singing so nice, and the whole vibe being so nice, is it their fault that their parents forgot to endow them with songwriters' genes? Let us not forget that there are, on the other side of the globe, tons of great songwriters who could never even begin to assemble together this kind of a nice sound. Surely there must be something said for niceness. I place this album together with my ambient Brian Eno collection: the perfect way to rock you to an easy, pleasant, revitalizing sleep, for about fifty minutes.
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