March 03, 2004

10,000 Maniacs "Campfire Songs: The Popular, Obscure & Unknown Recordings of 10,000 Maniacs"

It's amazing what time will do. The things once lambasted as "lame" suddenly become respected, and the things that were once considered "cool" are seen for what they really were--crap in quality's clothing. It's true of lots of things in popular culture, but it's especially true in the music world. Remember when artists like Jimmy Webb or The Association were considered the ultimate in whitebread? Yeah, me too. Now, they're cool--and they always were cool, it's just that the times and critical opinion changed.

And so it was that, by 1993, the world was sick of 10,000 Maniacs. Their album, Our Time In Eden, was all over the place, andit was easy to get sick of hearing "Candy Everybody Wants," "These Are Days" and the final hit, "Because The Night." The overwhelming arrangements didn't serve the songs very well, and were unlike anything the band had previously released. The band that had once been the estrogen answer to REM had suddenly turned into the sexless, Puritan alternative answer to Fleetwood Mac, and Natalie Merchant was transformed from bookish librarian into sexy non-sex symbol. This had its downfalls, as this focus and fame made 10,000 Maniacs less of a band as it did an ego trip, and the band imploded right as things were going right. Think that's wrong? In the liner notes, ook at the picture of the band from the 1990s. Yeah, that's right, there isn't one--but there's a picture of Natalie standing in the foreground, with the rest of the band off in the background, out of focus, blurry, indistinguishable. Telling? You bet.

By the time they reached the overwrought Our Time In Eden, it looked as if they'd finally discovered their sound and identity. Listening to the songs from their first two records, it's obvious that they were post-punk inspired; "Planned Obsolescence" and "My Mother The War" shockingly indicate that they owed quite a bit to Siouxsie & The Banshees, Joy Division and The Cure. The cover to their first record, 1982's Human Conflict Number Five, even looks like a typical goth record from that era. Only the third song from these records, "Tension," hints at the softer, folkier sounds to come.The Wishing Chair, their debut for Elektra, was a bit troubling, as they were still unsure of who they were. Though produced by Joe Boyd, it was very much a debut record, and it doesn't hold up after all these years. There's a reason they only included one song from that album "Scorpio Rising," and even this choice isn't that great It sounds like they're trying to be 'hard,' but they sound like a second-rate Quarterflash.

Of course, with their next two albums, things changed in a very big way. In My Tribe was their breakthrough album, and for good reason. "Like The Weather" was a well-deserved hit; the times had changed, and more intelligent music was finding favor in the mainstream. Considering the other bands who had come to attention that year--such diverse acts as Sugarcubes, Morrissey, REM, the Pixies, Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians and Tracy Chapman--it seemed that the time was right for 10,000 Maniacs. It was a song that made an impression on this writer, who was a young but impressionable fourteen years old budding music-lover. The album's an impressive collection of intelligent, mellow folk-rock that bordered on light rock, a proto-alternative style we called 'College Rock.' Other songs such as "Hey Jack Kerouac" and "Don't Talk" proved that this newfound style wasn't just a fluke.

In My Tribe and the follow-up Blind Man's Zoo were both produced by soft-rock master Peter Asher, and while Asher's work with older acts such as James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt might have proven to be a bit of a mismatch for most underground-minded acts, the pairing actually worked. Blind Man's Zoo was routinely bashed in the press at the time as being 'bland lite-rock,' 'too ambitious' and 'boring,' but those accusations were unfair. If anything, the album solidified and expanded upon the styles of In My Tribe, and Merchant's lyrics became deeper and more emotionally poignant. "Trouble Me" still stands as the band's best composition, and "Eat for Two" and "You Happy Puppet" were strong contenders as well. Though received with mixed reviews, Campfire Songs shows just how well these songs have matured.

Our Time In Eden still rankles; the three songs Campfire Songs, "Stockton Gala Days" and the two ubiquitous "Candy Everybody Wants" and "These Are Days" are here because they have to be here. In the times I've listened to the album, I've stopped it at "Eat For Two" and I haven't really regretted it. These melodramatic numbers--and the posthumous "Because the Night" from their MTV Unplugged album--are only the band's biggest commercial moments. They don't sound much at all like the band who had struggled for the past ten years, and the success of the album propelled the band into implosion. Natalie Merchant left for a solo career--the Carnival album was a better 10,000 Maniacs album than Eden--and the band briefly disbanded, before reforming with Mary Lynch as vocalist, releasing two good-but-why-bother albums and scoring a minor hit with a cover of "More than This." (None of the post-Merchant album tracks appear here.) Like other bands who lose a famous vocalist, the band made pretty music, but without Merchant, the band lost its spark. Sadly, the band disbanded when founding member Robert Buck passed away in 2000.

The second disc, entitled "The Obscure & Unknown Recordings," is actually the keeper. The greatest hits disc reminds you of why you fell in love (or should have, at least) with the Maniacs in the first place. The second disc, though, offers a view of the band that you probably wouldn't have known existed. Their uber-serious, ultra-literate lyrics often created an intellectual austerity, but this second disc is much more informal and freewheeling. Essentially a covers album--nine of the fourteen songs on here are covers-because the band seemed to stick to covers when it came to B-side material. These covers are quite diverse, from a duet with Michael Stipe on "To Sir, With Love," the cover of "Peace Train" that was removed from initial copies of In My Tribe, a cover of Jackson Browne's "These Days," the Carter Family's "Wildwood Flower" and a unique cover of David Bowie's "Starman." Most of these songs are from the Blind Man's Zoo/Our Time In Eden-era.

There are three demo versions of songs from Our Time In Eden, of "Noah's Dove," "Cirlce Dream" and "Eden," a demo version of "Can't Ignore the Train," and the only truly unreleased song, "Poppy Selling Man," which is from their first sessions. It's a strange song, stranger for the fact that it's nearly psychedelic in nature, mixed with a little bit of Joy Division. This disk is good, interesting, but it's easy to question some of the selection--it would be great to see the In My Tribe piano demos see official release, or maybe some of their older live material released, but all in all it's a good collection.

It's interesting to experience the Maniacs again, especially after having written them off due to their overwhelming and quite annoying success. They really were a great band, even if their image is of nothing more than a pop band. If anything, I'd love to see a band come along and replicate the wonderful jazzy, post-punk inspired folk-rock of their earlier days. While Merchant has a respectable career, and the others have their memories, all in all Campfire Songs: The Popular, Obscure & Unknown Recordings of 10,000 Maniacs is a wonderful little archive release and a nice document of a band that has been neglected for some time. Essential? Pretty much.

--Joseph Kyle

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