Pros: Some of these reinterpretations are improvements!
Cons: Occasionally the band comes off as jumbly.
(Disclaimer: Those looking for an overall description of the album will find what they're looking for in the "Review Body" section. The section titled "Track Reviews" is meant only for those who want to read detailed descriptions of the songs, and they do not constitute the essence of this review. Lastly and most importantly, this review might not be written in the point of view of a 10,000 Maniacs fan.)
Overall Score: 11/15
Best song: “Don't Talk”
Worst song: “I'm Not the Man”
Natalie Merchant was on her farewell tour with (the band), and they decided to stop by good ole MTV to participate in their unplugged series. I've listened to a few albums in this series, and there's one thing that's clear to me: 'Unplugged' is more of a guideline than a rule. Nobody was apparently going to stop them from plugging in an electric organ and giving that bass guitar a little bit of amplification. ...Eh, why should they have, anyway?
With that said, quite a few of these songs that sound radically different than their studio counterparts. Sometimes I shrug my shoulders at the reinterpretations, but there are other times when it was clearly for the better. “Don't Talk,” which was a cloudy and rather danceable pop song originally from In My Tribe, is mellowed out loosened. For my money, it improves the atmosphere. It also gives Merchant the opportunity to come off as more contemplative as she sings its rather sullen lyrics. They give a similarly loose interpretation of my favorite song of theirs, “Hey Jack Kerouac,” but in that case, it comes across as too cluttery to my ears.
The song that's the most different than its studio counterpart—and perhaps shockingly so—is “Eat For Two.” The original was a polished and jangly dance number that was perfect fodder for every popular college-rock radio station of the era. This live version, on the other hand, is a ballad with a Middle Eastern flavor injected into it. It certainly lacks the energy and charisma of the original so I wouldn't necessarily call it an improvement, but I still greatly appreciate the opportunity to hear such a vastly different interpretation of it. Most of the material they play here was from their latest, greatest Our Time in Eden, and those songs tend to be the most similar to their studio versions. “These Are Days” was one of their most exceptionally bright, optimistic, and upbeat songs. It's just a mite looser than its studio counterpart and the drums aren't nearly as pronounced. “Candy Everybody Wants” is also very similar to its studio version except, to my dismay, there's no horn section!
When I saw Merchant in concert in Summer 2010, she gave somewhat lengthy narratives before nearly every song she performed... And with the spoken narrative introduction to “Gold Rush Brides” that can be heard here, it shows as plain as day that she had been engaging in such practices for awhile. Though I can't say her narrative, about babies being born, is terribly interesting, but at least it doesn't last long. That song also happens to be one of their nicer ballads from Our Time in Eden, and it's a pleasure to hear again.
They close the album is a surprisingly mellow rendition of “Noah's Dove.” ...I thought the original was quite mellow as it was, but this one just goes all out in mellowness. I mean, if it were more mellow, I would think the band would stop moving entirely. Merchant starts it off by playing the main riff with a slow piano before the guitarists and drums finally kick in to give it a bit of body (but not too much). I would call it a lovely rendition for sure, but it would have been even better if they gradually gave it more momentum as it reached its conclusion. This is a fairly long song, and hearing its loose mellowness consistently throughout gives me the predilection to space out through it... Though it at least guides my thoughts in a few nice ways. I should mention that they don't perform anything from albums prior to In My Tribe, which is a bit surprising to me. Don't they like their early work? Or maybe they forwent performing those songs out of respect for their fans, most of whom probably didn't buy The Wishing Chair when it was still hot off the presses.
I stepped into this live album thinking it wouldn't be too terribly exciting. ...Well, it's not very exciting, depending on your definition of the term. Even though they mellowed down a few of their more danceable numbers here, such treatment usually made their songs seem more appropriate for their usually somber lyrics. The band, for the most part, is in tip-top shape, lending a few delicate textures to their songs that hadn't been heard in their respective originals. However, there are a few moments when the band just gets too jumbly for my tastes... but what can I say? Nobody's perfect. Not even Natalie Merchant is perfect even though she has a prissy, yuppie talking voice. ...But I really can't ask anything more out of her singing voice, which has never sounded smoother. Without a doubt, this live album is an absolute must for 10,000 Maniacs fans. Even if live albums aren't your thing, I think you would appreciate the sometimes vastly different takes on some of their most classic songs.
These Are Days A
It starts with a little introduction and applause... Not terribly exciting except the announcer is on a first-name basis with Natalie Merchant, apparently... The crowd seems to be somewhat sizable although not quite a stadium. (Wait, have these guys ever filled up a stadium?) ...This is called MTV unplugged, but right away I hear an electric bass and an electric organ... So maybe they should have retitled this album MTV Unplugged (Whenever It Was Convenient). As a matter of fact, they perform this song close to how it was on the studio cut. I don't necessarily blame them for that, though. Merchant sounds great, though. The recording quality is splendid, capturing her vocals in a crystal clear manner.
Eat For Two A
...Well this is certainly different than the original, which was basically an upbeat dance number. Here, here they turned it into a somber ballad. The new format I don't think improved it terribly apart from the fact that it fits those depressing lyrics a little better now. ...But I thought bands liked playing their dance songs live so that the audience could have something to dance to! Here, all they could possibly do is a slow interpretive dance. …The actual instrumentation is a point of interest, though. It seems rather exotic. I'm not sure what that instrument is that's playing the song's memorable riff, but … it sounds like a cross between an accordion and a tuba. (Have I ever pretended to be an instrument expert?) There are some bongos plodding along with the song, and the lead guitar playing some Middle Eastern scales. ...It's kinda cool.
Candy Everybody Wants A
What about diabetic people, you thoughtless wench? ...Oh here's another song from Our Time in Eden that sounds exactly the same as it did in the studio. ...Except where's the horn section? Horns don't require plugs, so that's no excuse. ...Oh well, it's a good song with or without the horns. Especially since they really get their groove on with this song, which is among their most happy and upbeat of their repertoire. Merchant's caramel vocals come in very strongly in front of the beautifully textured instrumentals.
I'm Not the Man B
The next time I watch School of Rock I'll keep it in mind that Natalie Merchant is not THE MAN. (That's a movie that was pretty big when it came out, but it seemed to fall out of public favor... Why?!) This is a nice song for sure. It was nice in the studio although it got a bit boring for me. Since they're playing it very closely to how the original was played, it suffers the same problem. There's of course the rawness aspect of this “unplugged” live album, which could have livened things up. But … No, it just doesn't.
Don't Talk A+
Well, here's one of my favorite songs from In My Tribe, and WOW! They actually improved it! It was more or less a dance song in its original incarnation, but here it's more like a rollicking power ballad. The band is really in top form, letting their acoustic guitars, pianos, drums generate a ton of momentum as it slowly reaches its soaring choruses. Actually, it comes off as a more appropriate expression of its lyrics, which Merchant delivers in a lovely fashion. (“Don't talk, I can guess it / Don't talk, well now you're restless / And you need somewhere to put the blame for how you feel inside / You'll look for a close and easy mark, and you'll see me as fair game.”)
Hey Jack Kerouac A
Always my favorite 10,000 Maniacs song, although I'm not giving it the coveted A+ mostly because I still like the original better! (Oh how picky I am!) They don't do anything to change its pace or its mood other than giving it a cloudier atmosphere, which I'm not sure particularly suits it. (The lead guitarist in particular sounds like he's getting a bit jumbled up in spots.) Nonetheless, no live show would've been complete without this song. It's catchy.
What's the Matter Here? A
Apparently this is the song that's more well-loved by fans than “Hey Jack Kerouac,” which I don't understand. Does it have as catchy of a melody? ...I DON'T THINK SO! ...But it's still pretty catchy, and I've always liked its groove. They do slow this down just a mite from the original, and gave it cloudier instrumentation. In this case, their very intricate texture they create is easy for me to sink myself into and—unlike the previous song—more or less seems to fit its mood. The lead guitarist takes a solo midway through, which is kind of cool. Merchant comes across as more contemplative than she did in the original song, which … once again, fits those somber lyrics much better.
Gold Rush Brides B+
Merchant decides to introduce this song with a narrative about … babies. Why? I have no idea. (When I went to her concert in 2009, she introduced every single song like this. ...No complaints, since it was educational.) ...Well, this was one of the slower songs from Our Time in Eden and it's a slow song on this live album. I like much of what the band does, creating a nicely intricate texture and Merchant's vocals are as solid as ever, but … Eh, it's slow! There's a little bit of build-up, but for some reason it doesn't take me along. Makes a nice listen, at least.
Like the Weather A-
This was their song from In My Tribe that confounded me the most. On the surface, it's the cheeriest song since The Monkee's “Theme From The Monkees,” but if you were to only read the lyrics, it's a wrist-slitting thing. ...Well, they pretty much perform it the exact same way they did in the studio. They don't bother trying to slow it down or anything. ...Though that's probably a good thing, because I can't imagine what this would have sounded like as a ballad. But anyway, the melody is nice and maybe you'll tap your foot to it? I like hearing that chuggy groove the rhythm guitarist comes up with … you'll have to pay attention in the background to hear it!
Trouble Me B
They mellowed the groove considerably from the original in Blind Man's Zoo, and I'm not sure it really suited it. The first two minutes of this are a little bit boring; there's not much interesting to report about the instrumental textures. Just the usual drums, plain piano chords, and pointy rhythm guitar. ...There's a middle-eight section that gets really nice at least, and it has some interesting build-up.
The big question in my mind about this song is if they improved the transition between the morose piano ballad and that upbeat jangle-fest that the original launches into with virtually no transition between the two. The answer is a resounding yes, although they achieve that by making the upbeat part not as upbeat. It's just as minor sort of pick-up. Perhaps that would have made the original sound nicer? ...On the downside, that means this song is a lot slower than the original, and I could certainly see how some people might find this boring. Me, on the other hand, like basking in its somberness. Maybe I'm emo, or something, except I don't listen to terrible music!
Because the Night A-
...Otherwise known as “Becuose the Night” to people from New York City. This is a cover of a song by Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen. I'm not terribly sure why these guys are covering it, but it sounds quite nice. The way it's presented here, it sounds pretty well next to their other material. The melody is fine, and it's delivered well from Merchant, as always. I like the hoedown fiddles. I suppose my complaint about it is that it's not terribly memorable, but I suppose I'll have to take that one up with the Boss.
Stockton Gala Days A-
One of the meh-worthy but still nice songs from Our Time in Eden, for sure. They let the song build up from humble beginnings to a rather cluttered ending, which I'm not sure was the best idea for it... Although I certainly appreciate that they would actually let the song build up, because then it grows more passionate at the end. Of course Merchant's vocals are there to match.
Noah's Dove A-
The original was already quite low-key... but this is even more low-key as Natalie Merchant plays its entire riff on the sullen piano. Eventually acoustic guitars, bass, and other instruments start to layer on top of that. It's a different version of the song, which I always appreciate. However, I wouldn't call it an improved version! This version is a little bit too loose for me. And despite the build-up, they don't really to that consistently for its entire run and the song ends up stagnating. Still, it's good.
This might not really be “unplugged,” but this live album is surprisingly excellent with a great song selection. They also play a few of these songs VERY differently than they did in the studio version, which ought to make this invaluable to hardened 10,000 Maniacs fans.
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Hope Chest: The Fredonia Recordings 1982-1983 (1990) | The Wishing Chair (1985) | In My Tribe (1987) | Blind Man's Zoo (1989) | Our Time in Eden (1992) | MTV Unplugged (1993)