Category Archives: Natalie Merchant

The Essentials: 10,000 Maniacs’ Our Time in Eden

(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.)

Natalie Merchant’s reasonably priced mega-box set is due out next month, though my pre-ordered copy is already in the UPS pipeline. I’ll have more to say about it after I receive it, no doubt, but one thing I can say is:

I’m saddened that the same love and affection shown to Natalie’s solo career hasn’t been applied to her days with her old group, 10,000 Maniacs.

Don’t get me wrong: the 2004 2-CD collection Campfire Songs: The Popular, Obscure and Unknown Recordings of 10,000 Maniacs is an excellent compilation. But that early era of the Maniacs (who are still a working, and excellent, band) deserves more – at the least, a series of official concert recordings, given that they were such an incredible live band. (Unplugged, while a fine set, doesn’t do them justice.) I’d love nothing more than to relive their short set at WXPN’s Five-Star Night in 1992…and given that three of those songs turned up as bonus tracks the 1993 British “Candy Everybody Wants” CD single, one wonders why the entire show wasn’t released. The same goes for their 1988 set at Sadler Wells Theatre in London, which was recorded by BBC 6 Radio, plus others.

Which is all beside the point of this “Essentials” plug, I suppose. Forgive the rant.

Anyway, from their first independent releases to their last CD, Unplugged, the Natalie-era 10K Maniacs never released a bum album. But – when it comes to stone-cold classics – two have more than stood the test of time: their 1987 breakthrough, In My Tribe, and their 1992 studio swan song, Our Time in Eden. At some to-be-determined time in the future, I’ll revisit the former; today, however, I’m spotlighting the latter.To my ears, it’s a perfect set. As I explained in my recap of 1992, it’s “everything I love about music: It’s poppy, rocky, bright, light and deep, with melodies that soar and lyrics that, if one listens to them, mean more than most. The juxtaposition of the jangly with the profound is something I adore.” I’d simply add that the addition of the horns and woodwinds from the J.B.’s (James Brown’s band) was a masterstroke, adding a depth to the proceedings. The Maniacs jumped into the deep end of the pool by adding the JB Horns, in other words, and swam with ease.

The album opens with the mesmerizing “Noah’s Dove,” which may well feature Natalie’s finest-ever vocal – or, more likely, one of her best.

It also includes the once-upon-a-long-ago radio and MTV staples of “These Are Days” and “Candy Everybody Wants” –

Other highlights include the fast-tempo “Few and Far Between” and sweeping “Stockton Gala Days” –

One additional thought: The album should have a warning label affixed to it. One listen will beget two and, then, three, four and more – as just happened to me. So, be forewarned.

Here’s the album as a whole:

The Songs:

  1. Noah’s Dove
  2. These Are Days
  3. Eden
  4. Few and Far Between
  5. Stockton Gala Days
  6. Gold Rush Brides
  7. Jezebel
  8. How You’ve Grown
  9. Candy Everybody Wants
  10. Tolerance
  11. Circle Dream
  12. If You Intend
  13. I’m Not the Man

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!