Category Archives: Folk Show

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: October 1985 (via Musician)

IMG_5332I first picked up Musician magazine in the early 1980s. As the name indicates, it was geared to musicians – of which, I wasn’t one. I didn’t buy it for the pictures of instruments and tech gear, though they all looked nice, but the profiles of musicians and record reviews.

This issue, as evidenced by the picture, featured John Cougar Mellencamp on the cover; and has an insightful five-and-a-half page article about him. The Indiana rocker, at the start of his career, hit a few obstacles, essentially flooring the gas pedal without first opening the garage door. He signed with Tony DeFries, David Bowie’s manager, who insisted on the “Cougar” moniker, released a few slipshod albums – his first, Chestnut Street Incident in 1976, sold a grand total of 12,000 copies – and earned a reputation of being a Grade A jerk. “I really didn’t have any handle on my career,” Mellencamp explains. “I was just insecure enough to listen to anybody who’d been in the business a long time—I figured they knew more.”

IMG_5333He gradually learned that there was more to rock music than looking the part, however. “I Need a Lover” (1978), “Ain’t Even Done With the Night” (1980) and “Hurts So Good” (1982) were solid stepping stones, serviceable tunes that wouldn’t cause anyone to change the radio station. And then ”Jack and Diane” happened. The reaction to that imperfect, but heartfelt song caused him to rethink his approach to music. Like “Hurts So Good,” it hailed from American Fool (1982); a four-star song on a two-star album, in other words. Uh-Huh (1983), his next effort, was better – “Pink Houses” is a classic slice of heartland rock, and “Crumblin’ Down” and “Authority Song” are damn good, too. But those songs didn’t foretell just how good he’d become; his next two albums, Scarecrow (1985) and Lonesome Jubilee (1987), stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best albums of the 1980s.

scarecrowThe Wikipedia entry gives conflicting release info for Scarecrow – September is cited in the first paragraph, but November is listed in the quick-hit section on the right. AllMusic lists November, too, but I recall playing the cassette, which came with an extra track (“The Kind of Fella I Am”), long before Thanksgiving – and this Billboard record chart from September 1985 that I just found proves me right.

Anyway, at the time, I was a junior at the Penn State mothership in State College, aka Happy Valley. I’ve covered the same timeframe here and here; there’s not much to add. I’d like to list the albums and singles I purchased this specific October, but my desk calendar, where I kept track of such things, remained at home with most of my things. I suspect, though, that it was none. Money was tight, and most of my cash went to non-dining hall food and other essentials, like pencils, typing paper and beer.

In fact, there were a few weekends when I hit the road in order to spend Saturday at the department store where I worked – when I didn’t have a Folk Show gig, of course. October 4th was one such example. I made money other ways, too: I rented out my season football pass; and sold my plasma twice a week. On the former: demand wasn’t great (or I was a bad scalper); I made 15 or 20 bucks a pop. On the latter: I possessed strong antibodies, I was told, so earned more than the going rate. My memory says it was $10 the first go-round and $15 the next.

About the Folk Show: I’d been on-air a total of two, maybe three times, by October’s end. The first teetered on disaster: a cart tape malfunctioned. Flustered, I muttered “What the fuh…” into the microphone, catching myself just in time to block the the final “ck” from slipping out. I’m sure the listeners were laughing their heads off.

As for Today’s Top 5, culled from this Musician:

IMG_53521) John Cougar Mellencamp – “Minutes to Memories.” The early and mid-1980s were a hard time for rural America: family farms were failing, and the reverberations expanded beyond the farms to the many businesses supporting them. On the Scarecrow album, Mellencamp took what he’d learned from “Jack & Diane” and “Pink Houses” and applied it to the reality that surrounded him in small-town Indiana – as Timothy White says in the review on page 109, “It’s a rock ’n’ roll Grapes of Wrath.”

There are many excellent songs on the album, but – to my ears – the best is ”Minutes to Memories,” written with childhood friend George Green. It spins the tale of an old man offering a young ‘un advice gleaned from his life’s experiences:

On a Greyhound 30 miles beyond Jamestown,
he saw the sun set on the Tennessee line.
He looked at the young man who was riding beside him.
He said, ‘I’m old, kind of worn out inside.
I worked my whole life in the steel mills of Gary
and, my father before me, I helped build this land.
Now I’m 77 and, with God as my witness,
I earned every dollar that passed through my hands.
My family and friends are the best thing I’ve known.
Through the eye of the needle, I’ll carry them home.’

‘Days turn to minutes
and minutes to memories.
Life sweeps away the dreams
that we have planned.
You are young and you are the future,
so suck it up and tough it out,
and be the best you can.’

Near the end, there’s a dramatic reveal: the young man, now older himself, is the narrator, and sharing the same hard-earned wisdom with a younger man – his son, perhaps:

The old man had a vision, but it was hard for me to follow.
I do things my way and I pay a high price.
When I think back on the old man and the bus ride,
now that I’m older, I can see he was right.

Another hot one out on Highway 11.
This is my life, it’s what I’ve chosen to do.
There are no free rides, no one said it’d be easy.
The old man told me this, my son, I’m telling it to you.

It’s a remarkable song from an undeniably great album.

IMG_53502) Neil Young – “My Boy.” Jimmy Guterman disliked Old Ways: “Neil Young’s desire to make real country music may be sincere, but succumbing to formula isn’t how to do it. ‘Old ways can be a ball and chain,’ Young sings. So can new beginnings.”

Despite having the trappings of country music, including fiddles and guest turns by outlaws Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, the album isn’t that far from the Comes a Time and Harvest blueprint. It doesn’t match either in terms of quality, mind you, but compared to the albums that it followed (Everybody’s Rockin’) and preceded (Landing on Water), it was an aural oasis. This touching song became a semi-staple during my days on the Folk Show.

3) Dwight Yoakam – “Guitars, Cadillacs.” After a failed stint in Nashville during the Urban Cowboy era, Dwight headed west to L.A., where his brand of honky-tonk music fit in with the burgeoning “cowpunk” scene. He released an EP, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., on an independent label; and earned enough rave reviews to get picked up by Reprise, which re-configured the EP into a full-length album the following year (which is when I bought it).

Writes J.D. Considine: “It’s one thing to cut a ‘Ring of Fire’ that makes the man in black sound like a city slicker, quite another to write ‘Miner’s Prayer,” a genuinely affecting Kentucky lament.” The title tune is a classic –

IMG_53554) Bryan Ferry – “Slave to Love.” The ever-suave Ferry sits for an interview with future Billboard editor Timothy White, talking about Roxy Music and his solo Boys and Girls LP, which had been released over the summer. “I didn’t want the album to be Avalon, Part Two, but it does have a continuity in that at least 10 of the musicians on both records are the same. And I’m the same composing-wise that I was on the previous album. But it has some differences as well. I’m always seen my Roxy catalog as my main body of work, as opposed to my solo career, and I do see Boys and Girls as coming from my Roxy work.”

As far as checking out the competition: “Currently, I don’t listen to what anybody else is doing in music because there are so many things that seem to remind me a bit of what I do or have done. It gets incestuous. [laughter] At the end of the day, you just have to know that no one can be you, and at best there can only be superficial similarities. I’m just getting further and further into myself.”

I owned the album; and, to my ears, it was Avalon, Part Two sans the hypnotic pull of the original – actually, Avalon, Part Three, given that Roxy Music’s live High Life EP (later released as the full-length Heart Still Beating CD) was, kinda sorta, Part Two.

5) David Bowie – “Heroes.” Hooked on Digital? asks the headline of Scott Isler’s in-depth article about compact discs, which were far from mainstream in 1985. Only 3300-4500 titles were in print (vs. 85,000 LPs) – a lack of printing plants was one reason. Another: the need to renegotiate royalty agreements. The article also dwells on the analog v. digital differences in both recording and listening; and predicts the increasing scarcity of vinyl. Doug Sax, the president of Sheffield Lab and the Mastering Lab, and Emiel Petrone, a senior vice-president at Polygram Records and chairman of the Compact Disc Group, “agree the LP will linger on only as a high-end curio for audiophiles willing drop a couple thou on a cartridge alone.”

Now, Bowie isn’t mentioned in this article. What’s the connection? Those first months at Penn State, I fell in with a guy who not only owned a CD player, but had an eclectic CD collection that included titles by Kitaro, Michael Oldfield, Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis…and David Bowie (the original RCA issues, for anyone who’s curious). This song was always one of my favorites to listen to with headphones –

Today’s Top 5: January/February 1986 (via Record Magazine)

IMG_5179This is the last issue that I have of Record magazine. Whether this was the last issue, I do not know, though that’s my hunch – the mailing slip lists my subscription’s end date as June 1986, and I can’t imagine I would’ve tossed those issues out. (I was something of a packrat when it came to anything music-related. I still am, though less so.) Anything is possible, though.

Anyway, by the time I received this issue in the mail, I was 20; and starting my second semester at the Penn State mothership. An English major with an emphasis in Creative Writing: that was me. I was also a deejay, though I was not all that I played; as I’ve written elsewhere, I was one of the rotating hosts on the Folk Show, which aired on the student-run WPSU-FM. “Folk,” on my twice-monthly stints, had a rather broad definition, especially when in my preferred 6am-10am Saturday- or Sunday-morning slot; I played everything from stereotypical folk music (Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Holly Near) to the Fugs and even Elvis Costello circa Almost Blue. “A Good Year for the Roses,” which I discovered via a listener request, became a semi-staple for the rest of my days on the air.

Another semi-staple: Neil Young’s haunting rendition of “Home on the Range” from the Where the Buffalo Roam soundtrack.

All of which leads to Today’s Top 5: January/February 1986 via Record magazine. It’s really more of a 1985 overview…

1) Don Henley – “The Boys of Summer.” Henley, who’s back on top of the charts with his Cass County album, graces the cover of the issue, as the above picture shows; and inside is an interview conducted by Bud Scoppa, who calls him a “seasoned 38-year-old artist” in the introduction. Henley was two albums into a successful solo career after a decade-long stint with the Eagles, and flying high on the strength of the hit “Boys of Summer” from Building the Perfect Beast, which had been released the previous fall. “I’m not ashamed of having been in the Eagles,” he says in the interview. “I think we accomplished a great deal and added some pretty good music to the annals of rock ’n’ roll. Some of it was crap, and I hated some of it, but when you’re in a group, you can’t get everything you want.”

I liked the Eagles; and I liked Henley’s first solo effort, I Can’t Stand Still. Building the Perfect Beast, I thought (and still think), was slightly better – not a four- or five-star release, mind you, but enjoyable nonetheless. “Sunset Grill” and “A Month of Sundays,” for instance, are excellent. But no song of his, not even with the Eagles, is as good as the one he crafted with Mike Campbell from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers: “The Boys of Summer.”

“I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac/A little voice inside my head said don’t look back, you can never look back…”

IMG_51852) Bruce Springsteen – “My Hometown.” This issue includes a Critic’s Poll of the best of everything for the preceding year. Thirty-two of the magazine’s contributors put forth their picks, and the results were tallied: Henley’s “Boys of Summer” was voted the top Single of the Year; and Springsteen was voted Artist of the Year. Since releasing Born in the U.S.A. in 1984, he’d embarked on a mega-successful tour that played arenas and stadiums; to paraphrase the piece, he won over a legion of new fans while retaining the longtime faithful, who didn’t hold his newfound popularity against him. “[P]eople still believe they can expect something from Springsteen—and, in the age of diminished expectations, that’s saying something.”

A few months back, thanks to a gift certificate our friend Luanne gave me to HDTracks, I picked up (i.e., downloaded) the high-res reissue of Born in the U.S.A. Not a five-star album, but one that – like Building the Perfect Beast – has its moments, many of which were released as singles. (In fact, seven of its 12 songs became Top 10 hits.) “My Hometown,” especially, resonates with me now in a way it didn’t back then.

IMG_51893) Suzanne Vega – “Marlene on the Wall.” “A walk for New York’s updated folkie Suzanne Vega, on the strength of her melodic, poetic Suzanne Vega LP,” says the Best Debuts paragraph in the Critics Poll. I first heard Vega when I played this song on the air early one morning; a fellow Folk Show deejay recommended her at a staff meeting, I think.

The other artists singled out: Lone Justice, Guadalcanal Diary, Sade, Whitney Houston, Zeitgeist, Dwight Yoakam, Katrina and the Waves, Fishbone and Freddie jackson.

IMG_51954) Neil Young – “After Berlin.” There, on page 40, is a full-page ad for Neil Young in Berlin, an 11-song strong representation of a 1982 West Berlin concert that was due out on VHS on January 13, 1986. There’s also a review of the video, which basically laments its brevity: “[W]hat lingers is the hunger for a show with the scope Young’s career demands. Still, Young’s phenomenal guitar work (the man’s improvisation rides an arc between convulsion and exorcism) ignites incendiary versions of ‘Cinnamon Girl,’ ‘Like a Hurricane’ and ‘Hey Hey, My My,” and these, plus the side-splitting techno-ballet performed by Neil and fellow space cadet Nils Lofgren on ‘Transformer Man,’ make Berlin, at the very least, worth a rental.”

The review doesn’t mention “After Berlin.” It’s a great lost song – and, by that, I mean part of its greatness is that it was left behind, forever etched in a specific place and time. He wrote it in the afternoon, played it that night and never looked back. “Can’t go back to where I started from/the road goes on and on….”

IMG_51985) Richard Thompson – “When the Spell Is Broken.” Another Folk Show staple. Thompson, of course, came from Fairport Convention, the English folk-rock band that also introduced the world to Sandy Denny; and his work with wife Linda was widely heralded. This song leads off his 1985 Across a Crowded Room LP, which the Critics Poll lists as No. 9 on the Albums of the Year list; the album is also named “Most Overlooked.” As a whole, it’s said, it was inspired by his divorce from Linda.  This song, my favorite from the set, features barbed guitar and lyrics: “Don’t swear your heart/from the very start/love letters you wrote/get pushed back down your throat/and leave you choking/when the spell is broken.”