(Disclaimer: Those looking for a brief 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 by the point of view of a 10,000 Maniacs fan.)
Overall Score: 11/15
Best song: “Can't Ignore the Train” and “Back O' the Moon”
Worst song: “Among the Americans”
Even from the beginning, I had the sense that 10,000 Maniacs always knew what they wanted to sound like. That sound is strewn all over this record—catchy grooves, jangly guitars up the wazoo, and splendidly carefree vocals from Natalie Merchant, the singer with the voice of melted caramel. In the debut, I described her as sounding rather timid, but that quality had left her entirely at this point. It sounds like she had at least 30 years to perfect her voice for this album.
They rerecorded a few songs from their debut, which I suppose makes it conveniently easy to hear how much they improved. In “Grey Victory,” you can hear Merchant's vocals really take command over that fun, jangly groove. The jangly groove itself has also improved considerably. It still has a little bit of the intentionally-sloppy nature of the original, but it's integrated more in the background so that the texture is still there, and it also doesn't distract us from Merchant's singing.
My favorite song here has got to be the opener, “Can't Ignore the Train,” which is what I consider to possess the band's quintessential sound. If you're outside on a cool day and feeling happy enough to dance around with some music, then that's the song you should listen to. Merchant's melodies all sound made-up-on-the-spot to me, but that's one of the main reason why these guys sound so dang carefree all of the time. Unfortunately, that also means she can be somewhat inconsistent at delivering potent hooks—but at least “Can't Ignore the Train” has its fair share of them.
“Back O' the Moon” is another one of my favorites even though it's pretty much the exact same thing as “Can't Ignore the Train.” But I won't criticize them for repeating themselves. How can I? They found such a nice sound, and I want them to mine it as much as they can. They even seem to resort back to that carefree vibe when they're not really trying; “Scorpio Rising” utilizes some darker and grittier guitar, but it turns out to be no match for the inner happiness that's welling out of it.
Despite the huge sonic improvements over their debut, I wouldn't be surprised if longtime fans still consider this to be primitive. Indeed, the guitars don't sound at all like they're made out of crystal, which they do in In My Tribe. It's for that reason I also wouldn't count this among their greatest album's. However, there's one thing that this album has that the others don't: its prone of experimentation. I know, I already said they pretty much cemented their final sound by this release, but I hear them trying a few things that they wouldn't really dare in future albums.
“Just as the Tide Was a Flowing” was an interesting attempt to combine their groove-happy ways with Medieval folk. “Arbor Day,” the closing song, is a waltz. ...However, by far the most uncharacteristic piece here is “The Colonial Wing,” which actually succeeds at being dark and edgy. To be sure, you'll still hear a trusty old jangle in it, but it's tighter and more violent. If you stick around for the middle, you'll get to hear a hearty smattering of distortion guitar. Merchant also sounds uncharacteristic of herself. Rather than her usual, high-on-life self, she's singing with some drama. She actually reminds me of Janis Joplin there.
Despite the “primitiveness” of this album, it clearly deserves to be considered among their classics. I mean, songs like “Can't Ignore the Train,” “Scorpio Rising,” “Maddox Table,” “Back O' the Moon,” “Grey Victory,” “Cotton Alley,” and “Tension Makes a Tangle” are difficult to argue with. Perhaps they're not perfect, but they all leave me with nothing but a big ole smile on my face. I probably wouldn't make this my first 10,000 Maniacs purchase—make it one of their later ones—but if you eventually find these guys to be irresistible, then you'll find The Wishing Chair to be irresistible as well.
Can't Ignore the Train A
I pretty much consider this the perfect example of what a quintessential 10,000 Maniacs song sounds like. It has a simple and perfectly danceable drum rhythm, the guitars are jangly and well-textured, and Natalie Merchant sings a carefree vocal melody. For some reason, I can't shake the feeling that many of these melodies, including this one, sound rather made-up-on-the spot. Maybe they came up with the groove first and tried to improvise the vocal melody the best they could? At any rate, it works. If you're feeling depressed, this is a fresh of breath air that you could use. It's like drinking a sip of mineral water after spending your entire life drinking out of the toilet.
Scorpio Rising A-
Once again, this is a 10,000 Maniacs song, but the guitars are more distorted than usual, which I suppose is a reason that I wouldn't describe this as typical for the group. Of course, everything else about this song is their unmistakeable signature... the jangly guitars, danceable beat, and the carefree vocal performance. The distorted guitars are messing with my brain!! Aghhh!!! ...Hey, wait a second. I'm a Scorpio, and I got out of bed this morning. Could this song be about me?
Just as the Tide Was Flowing A-
This upbeat 10,000 Maniacs song is played at a slightly lower speed, but it still has that typical 10,000 Maniacs feel. It sounds like Merchant is trying to sing a medieval folk song, except of course she gives it that good-times-feelin' sound with her carmelly chops. I actually would have liked to see the jangly guitars a little bit louder than the organ. Not that I don't like the organ, but the jangle is what gives it texture.
There really is something to be said for Merchant's singing. I'm not sure if I would have liked this song if it wasn't for that alluring way she handles that potent hook when she sings “Some think it is haunting / to be drawn to the cemetery ground.” The entire reason for the A-rating for this song rests on that hook. Also I must give some deserved props to the band who create another beautiful jingly/jangly texture. Once again, this is an incredibly pleasant little tune.
Back O' the Moon A
Yes, if you want to compare 10,000 Maniacs to Pink Floyd, all you need to know is that 10,000 Maniacs would prefer to refer to the dark side of the moon as “Back O' the Moon.” We all probably knew that after the slow balladry of the previous song, it wouldn't take them very long to get back to their carefree, danceable ways. It's not fundamentally different than “Can't Ignore the Train” apart from a slightly changed melody, which still seems somewhat improvised to me, as well as a brief moment in the middle when the drums stop playing. But you know what? With this band, I don't care if they keep repeating themselves. I mean, why shouldn't they mine this sound?
Maddox Table A-
Once again, it's upbeat and carefree. Why doesn't it get a solid A-rating has to do with the fact that it doesn't quite give me that liberating feeling that the other songs did... The melody doesn't have many of those alluring hooks. Of course, Merchant's vocals sound as good as they ever did. The jangly guitar textures are great, but they lost their novelty quality since they're here for all these songs. So, it's fun to listen to but lacking inspiration.
The Colonial Wing A
Now this is something different! If they wrote these songs in the order that they appear in the track listing, I would guess that that they knew they needed to change things up a bit after that relatively stale previous song. And why not do that by creating a song that is completely uncharacteristic of them? They write a tight and foreboding riff, and texture it up with some very dark synthesizer and guitar sounds in the background. Merchant doesn't sound so much “carefree” anymore but quite forceful... sounding I suppose a little more like Janis Joplin. Quite good! I'm glad they never adopted this as their usual sound, but it's good for a change-of-pace. (According to Wikipedia, this wasn't even on the original vinyl pressing of the album... So, they knew they needed to change-it-up when they programmed the CD release.)
Grey Victory A-
Yup it's back to business as usual, but as I mentioned in the previous track review, I'm more or less grateful for that. This is a rerecorded version of the same song from their earlier album, and it's definitely improved. The guitars are more cleaner, and Merchant's singing with way more confidence. But whereas it was one of the highlights on the previous album, it's not here. Merchant's vocal hooks don't seem to be quite as powerful as they could be. I suppose these sloppy guitars aren't necessarily a bad thing; there's something to be said for a slightly less refined jangle. I'm also amused by that keyboardist playing some silly scales during the obligatory “instrumental interlude” portion of the song.
Among the Americans B+
Seems a bit weak to me although if you're listening to this album on a car trip or something and spacing out with it to the scenery you might not notice. It's got that jangle guitar feeling, and more of Merchant's carefree vocals. She does hit a few endearing hooks in here, which I suppose is enough for most listeners. But that good-time jangly groove is interrupted by a bouts of washy guitar, which doesn't do much for me. I suppose at least it's different.
Everyone a Puzzle Lover A-
Still that typical 10,000 Maniacs sound with the main difference being that the guitars are way higher pitched than usual, and I hear an accordion playing long notes in the background. It doesn't ring like a classic, just because there aren't any huge hooks in the melody. (And the only thing approaching a huge hook is very, very similar to that hook I already pointed out in “Lilydale.” But of course, Merchant's fluid-like lead vocals are as strong as ever, and that's the main appeal of the song. As long as she and the guitar textures are intact, there's nothing really to dislike about this.
Cotton Alley B+
Nice textures, but I'm just a mite bored with this. Let's talk about the textures. It's very pretty. I hear a piano jangling around in the background and a lead guitarist noodling around tastefully. (Thank goodness he saw the error of his ways since the debut, where he just seemed to be doing nothing but cluttering things...) Merchant sings a typical melody, and that's good enough for many people, but she doesn't stumble upon any particularly big hooks.
I thought I told them to lay off these tropical things! This is also a rerecorded version of a song that had appeared on their debut, and it's a large improvement in the production and singing department. As I said about the original, it's nothing but a lot of breezy fun. The melody doesn't capture me, but those carefree vocals make it an experience. Play it on your next big vacation to Hawaii.
My Mother the War A-
Your mom must've been pretty intense, then... Yessiree, this is yet another rerecorded song from their debut. It was one of the better songs on there, but here it's one of the crowd. (There you go for a statement evidence of a band improving their craft!) When I was listening to this album in preparation for this review, it occurred to me how much this sounds like Blondie. When Merchant loses some of that liquid in her chops and concentrates on singing higher-pitched notes, she ends up sounding quite similar to Deborah Harry. Anyway, I like the determined drumbeat as well as the dark guitar and synthesizer sounds in the background. It's darker than the original version, which is probably better considering it's called “My Mother the War.” The groove is quite catchy, too.
Tension Makes a Tangle A-
Ah yes, every time 10,000 Maniacs deliver a darker song, you can bet there's a happy song right around the corner. If you want some good dancing-around-in-a-light-breeze-by-the-ocean music, then this might prove to be suitable. The groove is fun and upbeat. Merchant's vocal hooks are a little stronger here than usual, which should have been enough to warrant a full A-rating. But I'm not sure what the keyboardist was doing scaling around like that so loudly... Get that stuff in the background, Mr. Mixer!
Arbor Day B+
That was always a good day in my youth. We'd get a tree seedling from school to plant in our yards, but then it would just die as soon as winter rolled around again. ...Good times. This is an usual song for 10,000 Maniacs, because it's a waltz. It's not too bad. They got the old 3/4 waltz rhythm going nicely with their guitars and drums. An accordion is playing some sweet notes in the background. Of course Merchant's lead singing is as solid and confident as ever. ...But I'm just not that excited about it. The melody nor the groove is particularly memorable. It's respectable and perfectly listenable. It's probably even likable. But... eh.
Without a doubt, this is a classic 10,000 Maniacs album, and it's a huge improvement from their early material, which I had reviewed in the compilation Hope Chest: The Fredonia Recordings. However, they were still seemingly in their primitive state... so don't expect this to sound as polished as their following albums.
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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)
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