Category Archives: Natalie Merchant

Today’s Top 5: September 1989 (via Spin)

IMG_1132Spin magazine began life in the mid ‘80s basically as a more inclusive Rolling Stone, aiming not for the middle-aged rockers who made up much of RS’s readership, but young ‘uns who could, theoretically at least, be their kids, though they were more apt to be their younger siblings. The focus was college rock (aka, alternative before alternative was thusly named), hip-hop and other newer acts usually ignored by staid Rolling Stone.

In that sense, it was a good magazine. And, yet, I had a love-hate relationship with it, much as I did (and still do) with Rolling Stone. Whereas RS was staid and predictable, Spin sometimes radiated a hipster mentality with all the negative connotations therein. As a result, I usually read it at the newsstand. I brought this issue home, however, because of the cover story (by Jonathan Van Meter) on Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs, who’d just released Blind Man’s Zoo. They were, as I’ve written before, one of my favorite groups.

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Van Meter writes: “At 25, Natalie Merchant, in front of her band, 10,000 Maniacs, has become one of the more compelling figures of American pop music. Her big ethnic lips, kicky little hair cut, insinuating alto (which seems to have developed its own not-of-this-hemisphere accent), and whirling dervish-child stage persona have become an obsession for white people everywhere, and caused boy critics, both here and in Britain, to gush. But for all it’s worth, that’s really just icing. What rivets is the band’s music, and even more, the powerful short stories of Natalie’s lyrics.”

IMG_1135In the article, Natalie reflects on her musical heritage: “Because my parents were fans of music,” she says, “there was always music in the house. My grandfather played mandolin, guitar and accordion. He always claimed that back in Italy one of his cousins was a famous opera singer. My other grandmother on my mother’s side claims her grandmother was named Byron and that we’re related to Lord Byron. She’ll swear to it until the day she dies. Byron had an incestuous relationship with his half sister so she always told us we were the bastard children of Byron, and don’t forget it. My grandfather on the other side was Irish and he was a piano tuner and sang in a barbershop quartet. I took piano training for a while, and voice training, but I never really pursued it because it was too intimidating—the teachers and recitals. So I stopped everything, but I kept playing the piano.”

Anyway, onward to today’s 10,000 Maniacs-themed Top 5, with Natalie’s comments on the songs lifted from the article:

IMG_11361) 10,000 Maniacs – “Please Forgive Us.” “I’ve taken upon myself the obligation of making a public plea to Central America for forgiveness for what has been done to their country by all of the money that’s been provided for military aid to rebel groups there. I’m not apologizing to the Sandinistas. I’m apologizing to the people who have been caught in the cross fire, whose lives have been permanently disrupted by the loss of family members. the loss of their homes, the torturing of their children. And all done with our tax dollars. And I just…my heart doesn’t bleed for either side. What I’m concerned about is the people who knew absolutely nothing in that country and just found themselves in the middle of a war zone….”

2) 10,000 Maniacs – “Poison in the Well.” [It] is a very obvious song, especially now, with what’s happening in Alaska. [The Exxon Valdez oil spill.] But It was writing about Hooker Chemical Company in Buffalo and the Southern Love Canal, which everyone looks at as ancient history now. And it’s not ancient history where we live, because it’s still very much in the press. It’s a horrible event. Many people died of cancer. Many women to this day cannot conceive children, cannot stay pregnant.”

3) 10,000 Maniacs – “Eat for Two.” “[It] is about a young woman who doesn’t think being pregnant is her best option right now. But she’s five months along, so I avoid the abortion question, which is something that I really didn’t want to write about in a song. It’s a warning. Because the last verse is ‘Young girls should run and hide instead of risk the game by taking dares with yes.’ She’s saying, ‘Don’t be like me. Look at what a mess I’ve made of my life.’ And now it’s going to be the most public mistake she could ever make. I hope people don’t misinterpret it as a pro-life song.”

4) 10,000 Maniacs – “Hateful Hate.” “[It] is about the situation in [South] Africa and its historical context—what led up to what’s happening there today. There’s this intolerance of the differences between races and cultures that the colonial Europeans express towards—that they were primitive and savage. But this is all tired. Everyone knows what their attitude was.”

5) 10,000 Maniacs – “Trouble Me.” Well, the above four songs are the only ones singled out in the article, but no mention of Blind Man’s Zoo can be complete without this classic song…

 

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Today’s Top 5: Cover Songs

maniacs_stipe_1993There’s something magical when, in concert, an artist covers a song long associated with another act. Some fans hate such moments, I’m sure, wanting instead for another song from the artist’s own catalog; I understand that point. I do. But, for me, such moments offer a glimpse into the artist’s soul in a way their own songs don’t. Maybe they choose the song because they love it; or maybe they choose it because it’s cheesy fun. Either/or is fine by me. Here are five favorites from YouTube, including a few from my own YouTube channel:

1) 10,000 Maniacs with Michael Stipe – “To Sir With Love.” From MTV’s Inaugural Ball in 1993. “To Sir With Love” is just one of those songs for me; it brings back a flood of memories from just about every era of my life. Chief among them: September 17, 1992, when the Maniacs closed their set at WXPN’s Five-Star Night with the Lulu classic; it was sheer magic. This performance with Michael Stipe, on the other hand, is sheer goofy, contagious fun. (This clip also features the song that followed, when Stipe joins in on the Maniacs’ own “Candy Everybody Wants.”)

2) Garland Jeffreys with Marshall Crenshaw and Jonathan Edwards – “Waiting for the Man.” Since Reed’s passing, Garland has paid tribute to his old pal, whom he met in college in the early 1960s, with a cover of this classic Velvet Underground song at just about every show of his I’ve seen. This great performance hails from September 2015 at the Ardmore Music Hall in the Philadelphia suburb of Ardmore, Pa., where he was part of a round-robin concert with Marshall Crenshaw and Jonathan Edwards.

3) Susanna Hoffs – “When You Walk in the Room.” Susanna’s rhythm section had another commitment, so this November 2012 concert was just her, guitarist Andrew Brassell and a roadie on tambourine/percussion; and, as this song shows, the result was wondrous. She sang a few covers throughout the show, including the Beatles’ “All I Got to Do,” but this spin on the classic Jackie DeShannon song (which was a big hit for the Searchers) was my favorite.

4) Rumer – “American Dove.” This rendition of the Laura Nyro classic hails from Rumer’s first-ever concert in the U.S. in October 2011, at the World Cafe Live Upstairs in Philadelphia. We were two of about 50 folks in attendance.

5) Diane Birch – “Heavy Cross.” What’s amazing about this mesmerizing 2010 performance, which hails from French TV show? Everything.

And… one bonus.

Neil Young with Booker T & the MGs – “All Along the Watchtower.” In the early 2000s, Neil hit the road with the legendary Stax group. Their rendition of the Dylan-Hendrix classic is best summarized with three words: Crank it up!

Today’s Top 5: December 1985 (via Record Magazine)

IMG_0154Thirty years ago this week, I was working full-time hours (or close to them) at my part-time job. Although I attended the Penn State mothership in State College, between semesters – and even a few weekends during the semesters themselves – I punched a literal time clock at the Abraham & Straus department store in the Willow Grove Mall in Willow Grove, Pa.

The big movies, this month, were Rocky IV, Spies Like Us, The Color Purple and Out of Africa. NBC’s Thursday-night lineup of The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers, Night Court and Hill Street Blues ruled TV – though, for my part, I barely watched anything beyond the Flyers and Miami Vice while at school, and the latter was because a buddy watched it.

I’ve covered this same basic time frame in past Top 5s – Summer 1985, October 1985 and January/February 1986. It was, dare I say, a fun time in my life aside from one not-so-fun fact: I had a cold this week that was getting worse by the hour. The cold did not, however, keep me from my appointed rounds – I selected my Album of the Year, which was Lone Justice’s self-titled debut, as I did (and do) every year.

I also named a runner-up, which is something I rarely did at the time: the Long Ryders’ State of Our Union:

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Anyway, this issue of Record features Bryan Adams on the cover; I didn’t care for his music then, and still don’t care for it now. What excited me the most: a Q&A with Jane Wiedlin, who talks about leaving the Go-Go’s and recording/releasing her solo debut, which came out in October.

Q: Did leaving afflict you with the usual fear and loathing?

A: It was complicated. There was this enormous sense of relief to be out of the horrible things that were happening, but at the same time there was this sense of throwing away years of work, a pretty good income and a certain amount of fame in one fell swoop.

1) Jane Wiedlin – “Blue Kiss.” In the back of the magazine, a review of her debut by one Chris Morris says: “She proves to be a sweet and spunky lead vocalist, and the record boasts a number of strong pop ballads which showcase her vulnerable side – “Blue Kiss,” “I Will Wait for You,” “My Traveling Heart.” The review concludes with: “While the production is occasionally overwrought and some of the song choices are improbable or strained (“Somebody’s Going to Get Into This House” and the awkward protest number “Goodbye Cruel World”), Jane Wiedlin is in the main a touching, perky and likable first bow.”

“Blue Kiss,” the lead single, is a sweet pop confection that, to my ears, sounds like a Go-Go’s outtake; all that’s missing is Belinda Carlisle singing lead. And, if Belinda had sung lead, I’d wager it would’ve made the Top 10 instead of stalling at No. 77.

IMG_01562) 10,000 Maniacs – “Scorpio Rising.” The major-label debut of 10,000 Maniacs, The Wishing Chair, is reviewed in this issue. Critic Ted Drozdowski writes: “10,000 Maniacs are crafty devils, stewing folk, bluegrass and art rock into a style that begs comparison with R.E.M. and Fairport Convention, but carries enough mutant genes to sound daring and original. These western-New York Staters write songs that are wistful, romantic, sometimes elegiac, soaring on fragile melodies and fortified by manic rips of Robert Buck’s guitar.”

3) Hall & Oates with David Ruffin & Eddie Kenricks – “The Way You do the Things You Do/My Girl.” Philly blue-eyed soul meets Motown in this fun track from Hall & Oates’ Live at the Apollo album. The review by James Hunter isn’t super-kind: “The record hints that it’s about Hall and Oates’ connection to soul music, but it’s not. It’s about the best-selling pop duo in history, capable of looking so sharp one minute and utterly vacant the next, turning their live show into the sleekest possible disk. For hardcore fans only, minus the Temps.”

Like I’ve said elsewhere, I’ve never been much of a Hall & Oates fan – I like(d) some of their hits, but never enough to buy anything beyond their Rock ’n’ Soul, Vol. 1, collection. That said, you have to give them their due for sharing their love of Motown.

IMG_01684) Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Touble – “Change It.” Stevie Ray and Soul to Soul, his third album, receive a glowing tribute. “Stevie Ray Vaughan is about nothing but music, which sets Soul to Soul dramatically apart from its cohabitants on the 1985 album charts.” So says writer John Swenson, at any rate. The piece, which includes quotes from the blues guitarist, says this track “combines Vaughan’s best structural playing with the finest vocal he’s ever recorded, and Eric Clapton would undoubtedly be impressed by the way Stevie rewrites Freddie King on his solo.”

5) Marshall Crenshaw – “I’m Sorry (But So Is Brenda Lee).” Ira Robbins (late of Trouser Press?) says of Crenshaw’s third album, Downtown, “Affecting, unaffected singing supported by sharp, spare rock backing and succinct production make this as fine a record as any he’s made, and the perfect antidote to the synthesized dance-pop so prevalent nowadays.” Perhaps. Perhaps not.