Category Archives: 1986

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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Today’s Top 5: June 3, 1986

I have no idea as to where I was, or what I was doing, on this day in 1986. I can say, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, that it was a Tuesday and a fine, fine day and great night, given that we enjoyed a high of 72 and low of 48. I can also say, based on the basic timeframe: I’d recently finished my junior year at the Penn State mothership, and was back home for the summer. I was working, working and working at a department store while also taking (or about to take) a summer class at Penn State’s Ogontz campus: physical education.

The photos are from a few months earlier. The one at the top is my dorm room, minus my messy bed; the second is me, at my desk in said dorm room. (I’d be in a different dorm and room, and have a different roommate, when I returned to the mothership in the fall.) You may not be able to tell from the second picture, but those are paisley patterns dotting my shirt – a nod to the Paisley Underground. As I’ve written before, I was an English/Creative Writing major, deejayed a folk show on the student-run radio station and enjoyed a boatload of fun despite being a year too young for the bars.

Among the day’s headlines: Secretary of State George Shultz took a hard line against South Africa’s apartheid policies; the Supreme Court ruled that cable-TV operators were protected by the First Amendment; and the U.S. Senate broadcast its floor debate on TV for the first time. Also: former (and future) Go-Go released her debut album, Belinda, which included “Mad About You.” According to Weekly Top 40’s charts for the week ending June 7th, that catchy song was one of the week’s “power plays,” having jumped from No. 59 to 49.

Other recent releases that caught my ear: Steve Earle’s Guitar Town, Lou Reed’s Mistrial and Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band’s Like a Rock. Also receiving frequent play: the Bangles’ Different Light, which had been released in January; Emmylou Harris’ Thirteen, which was released in February; and others that I’ve long-since forgotten. Other, older albums in frequent rotation included Lone Justice’s debut, the Long Ryders’ State of Our Union, Jane Wiedlin’s solo debut and the Three O’Clock’s Arrive Without Traveling, plus whatever else I singled out in my 1985 roundup. (Many of my favorites for 1986 are here, but most had yet to be released by this point in the year.) Of course, there were my mainstays, too, including the Beatles, Neil Young, Janis Joplin and Hank Jr.

Anyway, onward to today’s Top 5: June 3, 1986 (based on the charts ending the 7th).

1) Madonna – “Live to Tell.” Most of my friends were not Madonna fans. They were into prog-rock, rock and/or folk music, and save for one dismissed her without listening to her music. I did not. To my ears, her first two albums were good, not great, affairs; True Blue, for me, was (and remains) her best work. This, its lead single was, and remains, a thing of wonder; and was No. 1 this week.

2) Simply Red – “Holding Back the Years.” Jumping from No. 22 to 16 is this soulful gem from the Manchester band’s 1985 debut.

3) John Cougar Mellencamp – “Rain on the Scarecrow.” The title tune to Mellencamp’s classic 1985 album Scarecrow, rises from No. 26 to 22. (I’ve featured the album before, of course.)

4) Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band – “Like a Rock.” Jumping 10 notches to No. 28 this week is this tune from the album of the same name. On the one hand, the song is yet another variation of Seger’s patented nostalgia-soaked formula, which dates (at least) to Brand New Morning’s “Railroad Days” in 1971. On the other hand, formulaic or not, it’s a damn good song – and just gets better the older I get.

5) Janet Jackson – “Nasty.” Looking back, one thing (among many) that I can definitely fault myself for is missing Janet Jackson’s third album, Control. (By decade’s end, when I was working in a CD store, I’d realize what I missed; and, in fact, saw her on her Rhythm Nation tour – a future Of Concerts Past entry, no question.) In its fourth week on the charts this, one of her iconic songs, clocked in at No. 33. (“What Have You Done for Me Lately” was No. 19, for what that’s worth.)

And one bonus…

6) The Bangles – “If She Knew What She Wants.” Another “power play” track, this gem from Different Light climbs to No. 42; and here they are on the Letterman show performing it with the house band:

The Essentials: Steve Earle – Guitar Town

(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.)

There are a handful of artists and acts that can claim credit for the laying the foundation for the alt. country/Americana scene that went mainstream during the early ‘90s, beginning with the most obvious: Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris.

Steve Earle is another.

Guitar Town, his 1986 debut, digs deep into the day-to-day life experienced by denizens of the forgotten America. By the mid-‘80s, factories were shutting down, farms going belly-up, and the dream of a better future seemed out of reach for many – as Earle articulates with journalistic precision on such songs as “Good Ol’ Boy (Gettin’ Tough),” “Someday” and “Hillbilly Highway.”

At the time, the music was deemed too country for rock and too rock for country; yet, despite that, the album made its way to No. 1 on the country charts. The title track made it to No. 7 and “Goodbye’s All We’ve Got Left” made it to No. 8.

In the years since its release, the album has been deemed one of the best of its time. Rolling Stone, for example, ranks it (too low) at No. 79 on its “Best Albums of the Eighties” list and at No. 482 on its Greatest Albums of All Time list.

Younger listeners may be shocked by the album’s relative brevity – it clocks in at just under 35 minutes. Make no mistake, however: There are no throwaways here.

The songs:

  1. Guitar Town
  2. Goodbye’s All We’ve Got Left
  3. Hillbilly Highway
  4. Good Ol’ Boy (Gettin’ Tough)
  5. My Old Friend The Blues
  6. Someday
  7. Think It Over
  8. Fearless Heart
  9. Little Rock ‘N’ Roller
  10. Down The Road