Thursday, August 5, 2010

10,000 Maniacs: In My Tribe (1987)



Is there really anything all that bad about being politically correct? Of course not. Anything can be taken to an unpalatable extreme, but in principle, the PC movement was a positive evolution in mainstream American thinking. Why, then, is it so demonized, and why has it been such since its spreading in the Reagan-Bush period? I don't know the answer, but I bet it has something to do with 10,000 Maniacs.

I have three 10KM albums, acquired during some bout of nostalgia for Natalie Merchant's throaty voice, which brings back not its original period so much as many late nights working as a deli clerk in the first half of the 2000s. On this, their Elektra debut, "Like the Weather" in particular effortlessly conjures up the rhythm of slicing someone's Ovengold Turkey. Weird the things that stick with you, I know, but I admit I've let this band live on goodwill in my mind for a long while without ever really seriously contemplating them, and scarcely ever taking out of one of their albums. Before it was deli clerking nostalgia, I suppose it was the free pass that comes with being an R.E.M. opener, that band's taste for support acts normally being close to infallible.

Today, this album -- produced by Peter Asher; yes, everything is Beatles-related! -- is a popped balloon. It's tempting to label Merchant's lyrics as aimless preaching, but truthfully I can't often tell what exactly she's getting at in speeches like this, from "The Painted Desert":

When I'm sure the rains have ended, the blooms have gone,
everyone killed by the morning frost.
Is a cactus blooming there in every roadside stand
where the big deal is cowboy gear won in Japan?

... and even when she's on, like on the engimatically appealing "Verdi Cries," she can hardly claim the knowing, earthy sophistication of her peer Tracy Chapman, and certainly not the transcendence of a Kate Bush. Most of her poetic lines are instantly negated by some annoyingly obvious copout or qualification. And yeah, she has her causes, you can take out your checklist now: "What's the Matter Here" tackles child abuse, "A Campfire Song" shakes a fist at man's rape of the landscape, "Gun Shy" is anti-gun or anti-army or something, so heavy-handed it would probably make David Crosby proud.

I'm not concerned by the emptiness of the words so much as the way that 10KM's music comes off with the same dull sheen as any knee-jerking, overly gentle good intentions gone too far... the most annoying fringes of hypersensitive liberalism set to music. I'd liken the sound to the college-rock version of a very poor director being permitted to shoot his shoestring debut in Technicolor Cinemascope, the size of which simply cannot be filled by his thin set of ideas. 10KM sound like jangle-pop, one of my favorite subgenres, writ so large as to obliterate all mystery and detail, sort of like U2 if they wrote songs in their sleep, so in other words sort of like Coldplay with a female lead singer and a Greenpeace bumper sticker. It is the sound of people making noise and taking great care to ensure that no distinction or personality slips through. Merchant bursts out with a couple of blandly convicted calls-to-arm, the image of naïvely free-spirited arms tentatively waving in the air all too inevitable.

It's difficult to tell most of the songs apart at a passing glance, with three exceptions: "Don't Talk" because it's lovely, "Peace Train" because it's a Cat Stevens cover, and "The Painted Desert" because it is obscenely awful. The story that endures from the "Peace Train" cover is more interesting than either version of the song: following Cat Stevens cum Yusuf Islam's call for Salman Rushdie's death, the band withdrew the track from future printings of the CD like good little imbecilic flagwavers. The stale production of "Painted Desert" reminds you of how much less fun the '80s probably were to live through than to remember on theoretic, selective terms. But "Don't Talk" really does shimmer, and it also doesn't really attempt to make any grand social gestures. It's nothing groundbreaking, but it is romantic and appealingly direct pop music.

Hating 10,000 Maniacs is difficult and pointless, much as I find it hard to yell at people over liberal causes; they may be simple-minded, but their hearts are too firmly in the much-needed right place to get too bent out of shape. I'm still struck by how forgettable this music is, and how much it now feels to be more an emotionally insignificant time capsule than a relevant piece of art or even history. I'd be surprised if it carries much luster for anyone now, but I could easily be wrong about that. To me, In My Tribe sounds like protest music... but shouldn't protest music be maybe a little bit angry?

I still kind of dig Merchant's singing, though.

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