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10,000 Maniacs at their best
on 20 January 2007
I will freely admit to being a huge fan of Natalie Merchant and the work she did with 10,000 Maniacs. However that respect for the artist had to begin somewhere and about a decade and a half ago it started when my older brother, knowing I worshipped R.E.M. (and with a mind to Micael Stipe's short cameo on A Campfire Song), loaned me a vinyl copy of In My Tribe to listen to and I fell in love.
Starting with the triple-whammy of "What's the Matter Here" (the song that turned the aforementioned older brother onto this album), "Hey, Jack Kerouac", and "Like the Weather" the album quickly establishes itself as a pop-rock masterclass. Its never going to be a favourite of political right wingers or people that resent a good lecture about the iniquities of society but the album is served well by these three definitive Maniac moments and the witty, wordy, and pleasant-despite-the-negatives world it presents. Its strange hearing the 20-ish year old Natalie Merchant's voice compared to the throatier and more mature singer of recent years but even at this stage her voice was gorgeous.
"The Painted Desert" is (in my often humble opinion) the most under-rated song in Merchant's catalogue. A painfully honest open letter from a woman to the man she thought would be waiting for her to join him after he left for a trip, Merchant does a great job of making sure that everyone but the author of the letter understands what is really going on. This leads into "Don't Talk", another iconic Maniac song in the "social conscience" vein established throughout the album with a driving rhythm carrying it forward excellently.
Its safe to say that the majority of the album is top-notch, a couple of tracks are merely good but still of better quality than many songs out there, but the final track on In My Tribe is simply a revelation.
Titled "Verdi Cries" it is a tale of sand-drawings, stolen pastry, loud classical music and quiet pianos. While the late Robert Buck's guitar work and Dennis Drew's keyboard skills are essential to the 10,000 Maniac sound "Verdi Cries" highlights that even as early as 1987 it was Merchant's show. This song is a one piano, one voice, small string section masterpiece and stands as, to my mind, the most perfect song ever written.