Category Archives: 1980s

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.

The Essentials: Emmylou Harris – The Ballad of Sally Rose

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once in their life.)

In February 1985. Emmylou Harris released her 11th album, The Ballad of Sally Rose. I bought it on vinyl on the 17th of that month, a Sunday, and liked it so much that, a few weeks later, I picked it up on cassette so that I could listen to it while driving my new old car, a ’79 Chevette. I also scored tickets to see her at the Academy of Music in Philly around the same time. In my Of Concerts Past piece about that show, I mentioned that it’s not necessarily her best work. It is, however, one of her most ambitious efforts. A true flawed masterpiece.

A concept album inspired by her relationship with Gram Parsons, the songs – written by Emmy and her husband at the time, Paul Kennerly – chart the story of a young woman who falls for a charismatic singer only to be wooed away from him by the promise of stardom. And just when she realizes her mistake and sets out to rejoin him…he dies in a car crash. Bad news, huh?

The scan, by the way, is of the flyer handed out at that 1985 concert, and it explains the story in a bit more depth.

As with many concept albums, the set’s weakness comes from having to tell a cohesive story over a succession of songs that also need to be able to stand alone. While the music remains strong throughout, lyrically a few tracks fall short. The flip side is this: Many are just plain great. The title cut, which kicks off the album, for instance, would have been at home on any of Emmy’s non-concept albums:

As I note in that Of Concerts Past piece, “Rhythm Guitar” and “Woman Walk the Line” are memorable, too. Likewise, the rest of Side One – up until “Bad News,” which doesn’t quite work. Side Two has its moments, as well, and the closing “Sweet Chariot” is sheer genius.

Here’s a YouTube playlist of the album in full:

Side One:

  1. The Ballad of Sally Rose
  2. Rhythm Guitar
  3. I Think I Love Him
  4. Heart to Heart
  5. Woman Walk the Line
  6. Bad News
  7. Timberline

Side Two:

  1. Long Tall Sally Rose
  2. White Line
  3. Diamond in My Crown
  4. The Sweetheart of the Rodeo
  5. KSOS
  6. Sweet Chariot

Of Concerts Past: Roxy Music at the Tower Theater, 1983

Too often, especially as we age, the waves of time wash over the sturdy landmarks of our youth like the ocean during high tide; and, when the water recedes, what’s left are merely dull fragments of a once-sharp image. Such is the case with this, the second-ever concert I attended. Much of the night remains a vivid, Technicolor wonder; but much more has been carried away by the receding tide of time.

First: As I mentioned in my remembrance of the previous week’s Kinks concert, the show was originally scheduled for the Spectrum in Philadelphia, but was relocated to the Tower Theater in Upper Darby at some point. I don’t know why, but imagine poor ticket sales were to blame. The Spectrum held upwards of 18,000 for concerts; the Tower fit about 3000. An event isn’t downsized that dramatically except to avoid a sea of empty seats.

The change in venue made the trip to the show that much more arduous from my neck of the woods. In today’s world, one could hop on the turnpike, exit at Mid-County and take the Blue Route and West Chester Pike. Maybe a 45-minute (to an hour, depending on traffic) trip. But back then? I didn’t drive much, and wasn’t behind the wheel – a friend with his father’s car was – but imagine we took 202 to West Chester Pike, with the 202 portion of the ride likely taking forever. Another friend was with us.

I say “likely” because I don’t remember it. What I do recall: Walking into the Tower and being amazed by the decked-out guys and girls milling about. Everyone was dressed to the nines in (stereotypical) New Wave fashion except for the three of us, who wore the typical suburban attire of jeans, button-down shirts and, given that it was a chilly night, light jackets. It was as if we’d stepped into a Duran Duran video, in other words. Our seats were on the balcony, a little less than a third of the way back, where the D-Squared vibe continued unabated.

To the show itself: the British band Modern English, who’d caught fire in the U.S. thanks to MTV placing “I Melt With You” into heavy rotation that spring, opened. My only memory of their set is of that song, their last of the night. The moment it began, many on the floor spilled out from their seats and danced in the aisles.

The reason we’d traveled to the Tower, of course, was Roxy Music. Maybe they had to downsize the venue, but whatever disappointments Bryan Ferry & Company had didn’t show in their performance. The band and backup singers came out dressed like many in the audience, like fashion models, and opened with the funky “The Main Thing” from Avalon

One highlight: “Can’t Let Go,” a song from Ferry’s 1978 solo album, The Bride Stripped Bare, which Roxy had just released on the live High Road EP.

Another: “My Only Love,” which – given that I’d been playing the High Road EP for much of the month – I knew like the back of my hand. It’s still a thing of genius.

Another: “Love Is the Drug,” the band’s lone U.S. hit.

Another: their take on Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane,” which saw a wind machine add to the stormy mood on stage. In its eye: Bryan Ferry, playing it cool; Phil Manzanera, tossing off guitar licks; and Andy MacKay, who wailed away on the sax in lieu of Neil’s swirling guitar solo. The back-up singers provided the proverbial icing on the cake.

“Editions of You” rocked:

The night ended with their cover of John Lennon’s classic “Jealous Guy.” It was the perfect cap to a great concert.

The next morning, in my desk calendar, I noted that “the Musique Roxy were fabulous. It was better than the Kinks!!”

One other memory: After the show, my friend at the wheel inadvertently ran a red light while trying to figure out where he was supposed to turn. Bubble lights from a police car flashed behind us and, within a few minutes, a bulky cop was leaning inside our car with a flashlight, scanning for any signs of intoxication. What he saw instead: three very sober, and very nervous, suburban kids. He let us go with a warning.

The likely set:

  1. The Main Thing
  2. Out of the Blue
  3. Both Ends Burning
  4. A Song for Europe
  5. Take a Chance With Me
  6. Can’t Let Go
  7. While My Heart Is Still Beating
  8. Impossible Guitar
  9. Tara
  10. Avalon
  11. My Only Love
  12. Dance Away
  13. Love Is the Drug
  14. Like a Hurricane
  15. Editions of You
  16. Do the Strand
  17. Jealous Guy