Though they would eventually achieve tremendous commercial success, 10,000 Maniacs seemed like unlikely candidates for mainstream stardom at the start of their recording career. The eclectic sextet from the remote upstate New York burg of Jamestown originally drew inspiration from an unpredictable array of influences, from folk to punk to reggae, an approach that’s reflected on Human Conflict Number Five and Secrets of the I Ching. Both indie discs document the Maniacs’ gently frenetic early sound, driven by the skirling guitars of Robert Buck and John Lombardo and given additional depth by Dennis Drew’s subtly atmospheric keyboards. Natalie Merchant’s odd, whispery vocals and fragmentary lyrics are already distinctive and intriguing. The former disc has a rather indecisive, unformed feel, but the latter begins to bring some needed focus to the band’s warmly eccentric vision by concentrating on the folk-rock elements. The lyrics serve up tastes of Latin and Spanish; the music ranges from screeching noise layered over a pop hook to almost psychedelic power calypso. The contents of both (minus the Human Conflict version of “Tension,” a song the band recorded for each) are smartly assembled, in remixed and resequenced form, on Hope Chest.
The Wishing Chair is a compelling major-label debut, as producer Joe Boyd helps the group sharpen its sound without sacrificing its original organic urgency or the inquisitive wonder of Merchant’s lyrics. (Although comparisons to Fairport Convention, with whom Boyd was long associated, are not invalid, the Maniacs’ sensibility and cultural references are totally different: small-town Americana isn’t rural England.) The band’s assertiveness and the singer’s introspection achieve a graceful balance on picturesque numbers like “Can’t Ignore the Train,” “Lilydale” and “Back o’ the Moon,” as well as three rerecorded Secrets of the I Ching numbers (including the third “Tension Makes a Tangle”).
In My Tribe marks a decisive turning point. The departure of John Lombardo — the band’s de facto leader and most prolific composer, who would return to the fold after Merchant’s departure — shifts the songwriting balance of power in Merchant’s favor. Also, the band trades Boyd for the more commercially oriented Peter Asher, whose polished production polishes off the edge but adds a stately melodic grace that can be appealing, particularly when applied to material as heartfelt as “Don’t Talk,” “The Painted Desert,” “A Campfire Song” (featuring a vocal cameo by Michael Stipe) and the spry “Like the Weather.” The realistic view of child abuse in “What’s the Matter Here?” is as troubling as Suzanne Vega’s “Luka”; “Cherry Tree” addresses illiteracy with poignant understanding; the cautionary “Gun Shy” is spoken directly at a brother who has newly become a soldier. For contrast, the delighted family vignette of “My Sister Rose” shares joy for its own sake, and the cover of Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train” offers a utopian alternative to Merchant’s more realistic originals. (After Stevens joined other Moslems endorsing the fatwa against novelist Salman Rushdie, the group moved to have “Peace Train” removed from the album, but their record company demurred.)
The musical simplicity that was refreshing on In My Tribe began to feel constricting on Blind Man’s Zoo, which features emotionally and musically on-target material (“Eat for Two,” “Headstrong”) but also suffers from an increasing tendency towards well-intentioned but unfocused preachiness (“Please Forgive Us,” “You Happy Puppet”). That’s less of a problem on Our Time in Eden, the lyrics of which tend to explore more personal territory. New producer Paul Fox gives the band a sound that’s frequently gorgeous but rather anonymous, underlining Merchant’s increased creative dominance (more than half the songs are her solo compositions). Still, it’s hard to fault standouts like “Stockton Gala Days,” “Candy Everybody Wants” and “Few and Far Between” — the last two featuring the legendary JB Horns.
Rather than strip down to basics, the band actually expanded tastefully for MTV Unplugged, on which nine added musicians lend a hand on reworkings of thirteen Maniacs tunes, as well as a decent reading of Patti Smith’s “Because the Night.”
Merchant left to go solo following MTV Unplugged. The Maniacs regrouped by bringing John Lombardo back into the fold, along with singer/violist Mary Ramsey (who had guested on Our Time in Eden and MTV Unplugged). Replacing Merchant with Lombardo and Ramsey was an inspired move, since the two albums the pair recorded as John and Mary maintain much of the ghostly grace of the Maniacs’ early work — not altogether surprising, given the presence of Maniacs Robert Buck (guitar) and Jerome Augustyniak (drums) on both discs. Ramsey’s vocals are similar to — but less self- absorbed and more melodic than — Merchant’s; Lombardo’s songwriting continues to explore familiar themes of human memory and cosmic mystery. Victory Gardens is a seductive, low-key delight, while the more fully realized The Weedkiller’s Daughter (with guest contributions by Alex Chilton, Bob Wiseman and Mary Margaret O’Hara) is even stronger.
Maniacs guitarist Robert Buck died of liver disease in December 2000. He was 42.