Saturday, April 9, 2011

10,000 Maniacs: Our Time in Eden (1992)



Try to forget for just a second that it's 2011 and pretend you feel optimistic about our government, our collective humanity, our bright future. Isn't there something to those premature proclamations Natalie Merchant lets loose in "These Are Days"? She says the world is warm, and it's there -- nearly tangible -- a feeling of being on the cusp of halcyon days, golden years, the Revolution. It's like that awful Jesus Jones song only it feels actually good to believe in it. Close your eyes and you're there, back to wide-eyed naivete. That's a difficult and powerful thing to record, and 10,000 Maniacs absolutely nail it on this track. Nearly two decades later, it still leaps out, even from supermarket intercoms, even from telephone company hold music -- which are the primary ways 10,000 Maniacs are now listened to.

Don't let that, or the unexpected delicacy and subtlety of opener "Noah's Dove" -- the band's second-best song behind "Eat for Two" -- fool you: 10,000 Maniacs are as toothless and boring as ever on the majority of this album. The difference between this and Blind Man's Zoo is that the slickness is now claustrophobic. Witness the lifeless brassiness of "Candy Everybody Wants," which sounds like an economics student's vision of funk, and it's just about the liveliest thing here apart from the first two tracks. The others revisit the acceptable meandering of Blind Man's Zoo ("Gold Rush Brides," "Stockton Gala Days," "I'm Not the Man") and the claustrophobic PC dirges of In My Tribe ("Tolerance," the antiseptic, cringeworthy "How You've Grown"). Even the typically reliable Natalie Merchant sounds bored -- "Noah's Dove" and "These Are Days" notwithstanding, she only comes to life in her passionate vocal performance on "Jezebel," which is better heard on the Maniacs' Unplugged album.

Producer Paul Fox lays on so much sweetness you wonder how so many self-respecting adult alterna-rockers put up with this back in 1992 -- the other bands they were listening to were actually doing fairly bold things at the time: U2 reinventing their entire conception with dance beats while investigating ever slower, sadder material; R.E.M. wallowing in Appalachia and self-pity with the exceptionally lovely double threat of Out of Time and Automatic for the People; and the Pixies breaking the hell up. It is, alas, this last lesson that 10KM failed even in duress to adopt. The sole virtue of much of 10,000 Maniacs' music is Natalie Merchant and her sometimes shrill but often wonderfully expressive voice. When Merchant announced an impending departure before this album's release, the band chose to soldier on, leaving time for a surprisingly ethereal Unplugged performance that stands as the band's best recorded moment.

The result wasn't terribly surprising. Though her solo career ended up copping to the same Sting-like blandness and Enya-like boredom that she seemed to be driving at with 10KM, Merchant's first single out of the gate was "Carnival," one of the most tremendously wise and beautiful singles of the '90s, a low-key treasure and her biggest hit ever. 10,000 Maniacs laid low for a couple of years and returned with the anonymous Mary Ramsey, who cooed and chirped her way through an embarrassing cover of Roxy Music's "More Than This," after which we never heard from the band again -- although they do still exist in some odd incarnation, now without even their late guitarist, Rob Buck. You can mark your calendars for their 30th anniversary tour, but I doubt very much any kind of a hip resurgence for this very strange band. Even by the standards of the modern chillwave scene that's renovated music lovers' perception of soft rock, their interest in remarkably bland, bloodless music makes their critical cachet and cult incomprehensible, a reevaluation too boring to conclude.

In My Tribe (1987)
Blind Man's Zoo (1989)
MTV Unplugged (1993)

Editorial Note: You might be wondering two things. First, why did I just review the bulk of the discography of a band I don't even like? Answer: I don't know, thought it would be interesting, wasn't even sure I didn't like them until I investigated, etc., sorry if it was lame but it was a fun exercise for me. There will be more stuff like it in the future, so sit yourself down and relax. Second, why did I just disappear for like twelve days? Well, when I'm gone for long periods it's because I'm probably tied up with a combination of my actual day job and my side gig writing rock reviews professionally as a freelancer, which does take up more time than these blog posts even though the reviews are shorter. (I will not write up an album I'm getting paid to review after hearing it just a couple of times, which I sometimes do here.) And also, we went out of town last night to see the Mountain Goats, who I already loved and after seeing the show am now enamored with and I don't think I can talk about anything else for a little while. But I'll try.

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