Posts Tagged ‘10000 Maniacs’

There’s not much I can say about John Prine’s passing that hasn’t been said better elsewhere. While his music and children are his main legacies, so too are the many up-and-coming singer-songwriters with whom he shared a stage. His embrace of those new artists speaks volumes of him as a person, just as the reverence those artists have for him says much about him.

Anyway, I discovered John Prine’s music in the mid ‘80s while deejaying a folk show on my college radio station. I picked up Bruised Orange and the 1976 best-of on vinyl, and – a few years later – The Missing Years on CD. I was never a huge fan, in other words, though he was someone whose music I liked and respected; I always intended (and still intend) to explore his oeuvre, but have yet to get there. In 1993, Diane and I saw him with Nanci Griffith when they played the Mann Music Center in Philly on a co-headlining tour. Most of my memories of the night have long been lost, though Diane and I both recall being surprised at the numerous Warlocks or Pagans (Philly’s versions of the Hell’s Angels) in attendance. They, like the rest of us, were spellbound during his set.

Here he is with Nanci in 1990 on the U.K. television show “Town and Country.”

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: New Music, Vol. CIII, given that it’s the 103rd day of the year.

1) Neil Young & Crazy Horse – “Shut It Down.” After first listening to “Shut It Down” last year, I liked the music but found the lyrics somewhat simplistic. Now? I hear them as oddly prophetic. As the new music video for the song shows, we are, indeed, shutting the whole system down.   

2) Hazel English – “Five and Dime.” I featured one of Hazel’s other new songs a few weeks back. This one, the latest teaser track from her forthcoming long player, is as hypnotic.

3) Shelby Lynne – “I Got You.” If the songs released thus far are any indication, Shelby’s new album – which features some (remixed) tracks from the Here I Am soundtrack alongside new tunes –  is going to be great. 

4) Shelby Lynne – “Don’t Even Believe in Love.” To my ears, this sounds like a long-lost Dusty in Memphis track, which is about the highest compliment I can give. Play it once and you’ll play it twice, and then find yourself playing it ad infinitum.

5) The Petersens – “Gentle on My Mind.” I stumbled upon this track this morning. It represents everything wonderful about music.

And one bonus… 

6) 10,000 Maniacs – “Hello in There.” In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, it became a thing for acts to release CD “maxi-singles” that coupled their latest hoped-for hit with a few songs not available elsewhere. Such was the case with the You Happy Puppet CD from 10,000 Maniacs, which featured the Blind Man’s Zoo cut alongside an acoustic version of “Gun Shy,” the Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower” and this cover of the John Prine classic – which, as it happens, is my favorite song by him (I’ve known many lonely older folks in my day).

Fun, but frustrating. That, in a nutshell, summarizes my reaction to the Facebook challenge of naming 10 all-time favorite albums over the course of 10 days. I have far more than 10 all-time favorites, many of which are equally weighted on the scale I employ to rate records. (Among my measurements: “wondrous,” “wow. just wow,” “sublime,” “mesmerizing,” “transcendent” and “it takes you there, wherever there is.”)

Selecting them also meant adopting a different mindset than when choosing my ballyhooed Album of the Year honor. There, I look back at what I’ve bought and played most often during the previous 12 months, and gauge what resonated with my soul at such a deep level that I know, just know, I’ll be listening to it for the rest of my life. (Sometimes I’m right, sometimes I’m wrong.)

Memes weren’t created to be fair, however, but to entertain. And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: 10 All-Time Favorite Albums, Part 2. (Part 1 can be found here.)

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Day 6: Juliana Hatfield – in exile deo. I’ve yet to feature this album in my “Essentials” series, but will at some point. It’s one of Juliana’s best albums – and her second to nab my esteemed Album of the Year honor.

Day 7: Joan Jett & the Blackhearts – I Love Rock ’n Roll. It may not be Joan’s best album (her debut, Bad Reputation, is likely that), but it’s her most important – and, in my estimation, one of the most important albums in rock history. Thus, its “Essential” status. 

Day 8: 10,000 Maniacs – Our Time in Eden. As perfect an album ever released, in my opinion. And another “Essentials” pick.

Day 9: Stephen Stills – Manassas. A two-LP (now one-CD) gem. Another “Essentials” pick.

Day 10: Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band – Darkness on the Edge of Town. This 1978 album is one of the greatest albums of all time. What’s amazing about it, to me, is that the themes that Springsteen explores, both lyrically and musically, speak to their time and to all times. (It’s a future “Essentials” pick, in other words.)

And a three non-Facebook bonuses…

Day 11: Dusty Springfield – Dusty in Memphis. Another perfect record. And another “Essentials” pick.

Day 12: The Jam – Snap!. One of the greatest best-of compilations to be released on vinyl, and a set I’ve listened to as much in the past year as I did in the first year I bought it. It never grows old. (It’s an “Essential,” in other words.)

Day 13: Courtney Marie Andrews – Honest Life. It may be a relatively recent album, and as such doesn’t qualify for “essential” status just yet (my homegrown rule is an album has to be at least five years old for that), but it shot to the top of my internal charts the moment I heard it, and hasn’t left. It’s everything good about music. 

There are far more important concerns than NPR’s 150 Greatest Albums Made by Women list. This, we know. Yet, while breezing through it Monday afternoon, I couldn’t help but to (silently) scream.

First and foremost: Albums from last year are on it. Seriously?! Maybe it’s me, but placing any recently released album on a “best of all time” list is short-sighted; we don’t know whether it will, as most great albums do, grow stronger through the years or fall from favor. The former is (obviously) the case for Joni Mitchell’s Blue (from 1971), the top pick, and Aretha Franklin’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (from 1967), No. 4 (which really should have been No. 2). They speak universal truths of the human condition that are applicable to every generation and age; i.e., they both reflect and transcend their time.

That’s one reason why my Essentials series has a strict “at least five years old” policy. “Classic” status only kicks in if you continually return to an album – and not just for nostalgia’s sake – time and again through the years.

Another reason for my (silent) scream: The exclusion of many great and influential albums at the expense of…Britney Spears?! The Spice Girls?! Isn’t that a bit like including David Cassidy and the Osmond Brothers on an all-male list? I also have serious doubts about any list that ranks Hole higher than Joan Jett or Chrissie Hynde. They kicked down the door for Courtney Love (and all other women rockers who followed them, for that matter). I agree that the debuts of Tracy Chapman and the Indigo Girls should be included, but 10,000 Maniacs’ In My Tribe and Suzanne Vega’s Solitude Standing set the stage for them. And Vega’s 99.9° deserves mention, too, as does Madonna’s True Blue.

But, of course, that’s part and parcel with these sorts of lists. I’ve never seen one that I agree with – from Rolling Stone‘s to Entertainment Weekly‘s to Mojo‘s. They’re generally the creation of a small band of voters who share the same basic dispositions. I.e., they’re good for starting arguments, little else.

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: Albums MIA From NPR’s “Made by Women” List. (Where they fall is anyone’s guess… so I’m placing them in chronological order.) And, yes – I could well have called this Top 5 “My Regulars.” I’ve featured all of them many times.

1) Lone Justice – Lone Justice (1985). Selected song: “Sweet, Sweet Baby (I’m Falling).” I’ve written about this album, and spotlighted this song, many times before, of course, including in my first Essentials entry. It’s a genre-shattering, epoch-changing album that set the stage for the alt.country boom a decade later.

2) 10,000 Maniacs – In My Tribe (1987). Selected song: “Hey Jack Kerouac.” A folk-rock band from upstate New York, the Maniacs were (and remain) a wondrous group of eccentrics with a serious knack for crafting cool and catchy tunes. Who else could have come up with this swinging ode to Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and the beats? Their success paved the way for other late-‘80s (and beyond) folk-flavored singers and bands, from Tracy Chapman to the Indigo Girls to Innocence Mission.

3) Blake Babies – Sunburn (1990). Selected song: “Sanctify.” You want punk? You want spunk? You want an album that, whether anyone heard it or not, helped kick off the ‘90s wave of women-led rock bands? That could be said to be a true alt.college-rock album? That sounds like it was recorded yesterday? Then pick up this classic from Juliana Hatfield & Co. (And be sure to get Earwig, too). This song brings a “heavy metal rain” upon one’s head…

4) Juliana Hatfield – in exile deo (2004). Selected song: “Tourist.” On her own, Juliana has released a slew of stupendous albums, from Hey Babe (1992) to Pussycat (2017) – but I’m limiting myself to this one (and the Blake Babies) because, well, it’s great – her second to win my esteemed Album of the Year, in fact. Just as a side note: I clearly remember when and where I first heard it – on the day of its release in my Dodge Neon while on my way to pick up my wife.

5) Rumer – Seasons of My Soul (2010). Selected song: “On My Way Home.” I’ve written (too many times) about this album before, most recently in my Essentials series. At once retro and modern, it went platinum twice-over in the U.K. and topped the iTunes charts in the States; and it’s influenced other singers in the U.K. to follow the same stylistic path.

And two (non-chronological) bonuses:

6) Rosanne Cash – Interiors (1990). Selected song: “What We Really Want.” Rosanne Cash shed the country label with this, her seventh album, which owes a heavy debt to Joni Mitchell and the other confessional singer-songwriters of the early ‘70s. It’s stark and powerful, and a glimpse of the internal demons haunting her at the time.

7) Nanci Griffith – Other Voices, Other Rooms (1993). Selected song: “Speed at the Sound of Loneliness.” In the early 1990s, after a string of successful albums, Nanci celebrated her influences on the sublime Other Voices album; and won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album as a result.

When was it? Fall of ’85? Spring of ’86? Difficult to say, but I suspect it was sometime in the spring that I first heard 10,000 Maniacs. They were one of several of the era’s new folk-flavored acts that I discovered while deejaying the weekend Folk Show on Penn State’s studio-run radio station at the time, WPSU. (It’s now a professionally-run station, with WKPS filling the void for students.)

I’ve written about those times before, but for those who haven’t seen those posts: It was a two- or sometimes three-times a month gig, depending on the schedule laid out by Folk Show overlord (and friendly grad student) Jerry, and – aside from the occasional 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. slot – usually meant I had to be in studio by 6 a.m. On a Saturday. Or Sunday. After a night of…well,  I won’t say debauchery, but it was college…and State College, the home of the Penn State mothership, is nicknamed “Happy Valley” for a reason. But me waking at 5:30 a.m. and hiking across campus while bleary-eyed was a rarity. I (usually) got a good night’s sleep beforehand.

I also prepared. During the week prior to a shift, I stopped in the station and flipped through the LPs in the massive library, mapping out my playlist. I generally focused the first hours on folk-rock old (Byrds) and new (Long Ryders) before, around 8 a.m., trading in that palette for one that mixed more stereotypical fare (Joan Baez, Holly Near, Pete Seeger) with up-and-comers (Nanci Griffith, Suzanne Vega).

At some point, too, I began bringing in treasures from my own collection; and also became adept at tossing aside my planned platters and programming on the fly. I’d queue up Side 1 of a Fast Folk Musical Magazine sampler, introduce the first track and then slip out of the booth and into the library for 5 or 10 minutes in search of something, though I usually didn’t know what that something was. That was how I stumbled upon The Wishing Chair, the major-label debut of 10,000 Maniacs, in fact. Someone may have mentioned it at a staff meeting, which was how I discovered Suzanne Vega, or I may have recognized it from this review in Record magazine. I decided to give it a whirl. I can’t say for sure, but I likely went with the first song on Side 1, “Can’t Ignore the Train.”

In some ways, Natalie Merchant’s years with 10,000 Maniacs equate to a somewhat lengthy college career – though those of us who became fans at the time didn’t recognize it as such. As this Rolling Stone article (which I spotlight here) recounts, she joined the group as a shy 16-year-old girl, often singing with her back to the audience, and left as a confident woman.

The 10-CD Natalie Merchant Collection skips all of it. Which is fair.

Looking back, however, I think it’s obvious that many of us started a journey together during that pre-history era. Whether we date our fandom to the early-‘80s indie days, rocked in The Wishing Chair, hopped aboard the “Peace Train” or traveled to “Eden,” and traded tapes on the pre-Internet boards of Prodigy or AOL, doesn’t much matter, anymore. We were young.

We graduated to adulthood and, now, middle-age together. That, in essence, is what the collection charts. It features her seven studio albums, beginning with Tigerlily and ending with Paradise Is There (bookends, in a way); a disc of new songs alongside older ones redone with a string quartet; and another disc of rare and previously unreleased tracks. There’s also a CD-sized booklet that contains lyrics, song personnel and plenty of pictures, though no laudatory essay chronicling her artistic journey – the latter is somewhat customary for such box sets, but isn’t missed.

We can hear the trek for ourselves – and relive our life’s journey, for that matter – in the grooves. Those albums include two of my Albums of the Year in Tigerily and Motherland; runners-up in Leave Your Sleep and Natalie Merchant; and others that I enjoyed, though thought flawed. (Live in Concert, my top pick for 1999, is curiously absent; one hopes that plans are afoot to release an expanded edition in the future.)

The one album that I most misjudged was Ophelia. On my old website, I wrote that “while an admirable concept, the album’s overarching theme (the many facets of womanhood) weighs on the individual songs to the point that, save for a few, one can’t tell them apart.” I singled out “Break My Heart” as its best track and dubbed “Kind and Generous,” which I now thoroughly love (especially in a live setting), “simple-minded mishmash.”

And “Life Is Sweet,” which I now rank with her best songs? I only mentioned it in a months-later addendum, and then just to say that, while I’d come to like it, it paled in comparison to Maria McKee’s similarly themed song of the same name.

I’d call them equals, now.

Of course, a collection that features so much of the old – all things most longtime fans will (or should) already have – does make one question the necessity of it. But the two discs of new and new-to-us material are well worth the price of admission.

The ninth disc, titled Butterfly, includes three new-to-us songs set beside seven older ones, and features Natalie accompanied by a string quartet. The title track wafts like a breeze on a late-spring day while, lyrically, a smart metaphor about fate and chance flutters like a spider’s web billowing in the wind. There’s a foreboding in many of the lyrics, such as “Baby Mine”: “There’re so many things you’ve got to fear/It’s making me ache to see so clear/So many things you’ve got to know/It’s making me ache/You’ve got to grow.”

The redone older songs are Paradise Is There, Part Two, in a sense, but come off somewhat better due to their dispersed sources – three from Ophelia; two from Leave Your Sleep; and one from Motherland. Though it may be new to some, to my knowledge the Ophelia outtake “She Devil” first appeared on the two-CD edition of 2005’s Retrospective.

The 10th disc, Rarities, is a sheer delight. True, some of the tracks have been available on various compilations, such as her cover of Buddy Holly’s “Learning the Game”…

…and “The Gulf of Araby” is from the aforementioned Live in Concert album, but – all in all – the disc is a five-star alternate history.

Among the nuggets: her takes on the Kinks’ “The Village Green Preservation Society” and the spiritual “Sit Down, Sister.” (She needs to release an album of spirituals. Just sayin’.)

My only other observation: I wish that an additional disc of rarities had been included, if only to have everything in one place. And, too, I’d hate to think that her many Tigerlily-era bonus tracks, such as Joni’s “All I Want,” the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” Irma Thomas’ “Take a Look” and the Aretha-Dusty medley of “Baby I Love You”-“Son of a Preacher Man,” have been lost to time…

…or copyright issues, given the way videos come and go from YouTube.

Anyway, the set is inexpensive – $50 for 10 discs. For young fans, honestly, it’s a no-brainer. Order it and the 10,000 Maniacs’ 2-CD Campfire Songs compilation. For longtime fans hesitant to re-purchase much, if not all, of what they already own, I’d say that…hey, it’s $50. A cool package. Nice booklet. Great music. The songs you know will take you back; Butterfly will make you think; and Rarities will make you smile.