The Natalie Merchant Collection – The Review

When was it? Fall of ’85? Spring of ’86? Difficult to say, but I suspect it was sometime in the spring that I first heard 10,000 Maniacs. They were one of several of the era’s new folk-flavored acts that I discovered while deejaying the weekend Folk Show on Penn State’s studio-run radio station at the time, WPSU. (It’s now a professionally-run station, with WKPS filling the void for students.)

I’ve written about those times before, but for those who haven’t seen those posts: It was a two- or sometimes three-times a month gig, depending on the schedule laid out by Folk Show overlord (and friendly grad student) Jerry, and – aside from the occasional 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. slot – usually meant I had to be in studio by 6 a.m. On a Saturday. Or Sunday. After a night of…well,  I won’t say debauchery, but it was college…and State College, the home of the Penn State mothership, is nicknamed “Happy Valley” for a reason. But me waking at 5:30 a.m. and hiking across campus while bleary-eyed was a rarity. I (usually) got a good night’s sleep beforehand.

I also prepared. During the week prior to a shift, I stopped in the station and flipped through the LPs in the massive library, mapping out my playlist. I generally focused the first hours on folk-rock old (Byrds) and new (Long Ryders) before, around 8 a.m., trading in that palette for one that mixed more stereotypical fare (Joan Baez, Holly Near, Pete Seeger) with up-and-comers (Nanci Griffith, Suzanne Vega).

At some point, too, I began bringing in treasures from my own collection; and also became adept at tossing aside my planned platters and programming on the fly. I’d queue up Side 1 of a Fast Folk Musical Magazine sampler, introduce the first track and then slip out of the booth and into the library for 5 or 10 minutes in search of something, though I usually didn’t know what that something was. That was how I stumbled upon The Wishing Chair, the major-label debut of 10,000 Maniacs, in fact. Someone may have mentioned it at a staff meeting, which was how I discovered Suzanne Vega, or I may have recognized it from this review in Record magazine. I decided to give it a whirl. I can’t say for sure, but I likely went with the first song on Side 1, “Can’t Ignore the Train.”

In some ways, Natalie Merchant’s years with 10,000 Maniacs equate to a somewhat lengthy college career – though those of us who became fans at the time didn’t recognize it as such. As this Rolling Stone article (which I spotlight here) recounts, she joined the group as a shy 16-year-old girl, often singing with her back to the audience, and left as a confident woman.

The 10-CD Natalie Merchant Collection skips all of it. Which is fair.

Looking back, however, I think it’s obvious that many of us started a journey together during that pre-history era. Whether we date our fandom to the early-‘80s indie days, rocked in The Wishing Chair, hopped aboard the “Peace Train” or traveled to “Eden,” and traded tapes on the pre-Internet boards of Prodigy or AOL, doesn’t much matter, anymore. We were young.

We graduated to adulthood and, now, middle-age together. That, in essence, is what the collection charts. It features her seven studio albums, beginning with Tigerlily and ending with Paradise Is There (bookends, in a way); a disc of new songs alongside older ones redone with a string quartet; and another disc of rare and previously unreleased tracks. There’s also a CD-sized booklet that contains lyrics, song personnel and plenty of pictures, though no laudatory essay chronicling her artistic journey – the latter is somewhat customary for such box sets, but isn’t missed.

We can hear the trek for ourselves – and relive our life’s journey, for that matter – in the grooves. Those albums include two of my Albums of the Year in Tigerily and Motherland; runners-up in Leave Your Sleep and Natalie Merchant; and others that I enjoyed, though thought flawed. (Live in Concert, my top pick for 1999, is curiously absent; one hopes that plans are afoot to release an expanded edition in the future.)

The one album that I most misjudged was Ophelia. On my old website, I wrote that “while an admirable concept, the album’s overarching theme (the many facets of womanhood) weighs on the individual songs to the point that, save for a few, one can’t tell them apart.” I singled out “Break My Heart” as its best track and dubbed “Kind and Generous,” which I now thoroughly love (especially in a live setting), “simple-minded mishmash.”

And “Life Is Sweet,” which I now rank with her best songs? I only mentioned it in a months-later addendum, and then just to say that, while I’d come to like it, it paled in comparison to Maria McKee’s similarly themed song of the same name.

I’d call them equals, now.

Of course, a collection that features so much of the old – all things most longtime fans will (or should) already have – does make one question the necessity of it. But the two discs of new and new-to-us material are well worth the price of admission.

The ninth disc, titled Butterfly, includes three new-to-us songs set beside seven older ones, and features Natalie accompanied by a string quartet. The title track wafts like a breeze on a late-spring day while, lyrically, a smart metaphor about fate and chance flutters like a spider’s web billowing in the wind. There’s a foreboding in many of the lyrics, such as “Baby Mine”: “There’re so many things you’ve got to fear/It’s making me ache to see so clear/So many things you’ve got to know/It’s making me ache/You’ve got to grow.”

The redone older songs are Paradise Is There, Part Two, in a sense, but come off somewhat better due to their dispersed sources – three from Ophelia; two from Leave Your Sleep; and one from Motherland. Though it may be new to some, to my knowledge the Ophelia outtake “She Devil” first appeared on the two-CD edition of 2005’s Retrospective.

The 10th disc, Rarities, is a sheer delight. True, some of the tracks have been available on various compilations, such as her cover of Buddy Holly’s “Learning the Game”…

…and “The Gulf of Araby” is from the aforementioned Live in Concert album, but – all in all – the disc is a five-star alternate history.

Among the nuggets: her takes on the Kinks’ “The Village Green Preservation Society” and the spiritual “Sit Down, Sister.” (She needs to release an album of spirituals. Just sayin’.)

My only other observation: I wish that an additional disc of rarities had been included, if only to have everything in one place. And, too, I’d hate to think that her many Tigerlily-era bonus tracks, such as Joni’s “All I Want,” the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” Irma Thomas’ “Take a Look” and the Aretha-Dusty medley of “Baby I Love You”-“Son of a Preacher Man,” have been lost to time…

…or copyright issues, given the way videos come and go from YouTube.

Anyway, the set is inexpensive – $50 for 10 discs. For young fans, honestly, it’s a no-brainer. Order it and the 10,000 Maniacs’ 2-CD Campfire Songs compilation. For longtime fans hesitant to re-purchase much, if not all, of what they already own, I’d say that…hey, it’s $50. A cool package. Nice booklet. Great music. The songs you know will take you back; Butterfly will make you think; and Rarities will make you smile.

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