For Crying Out Loud
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Confession time: I really liked 10,000 Maniacs back in the 1980s, but when Natalie Merchant left the band in 1993, I followed her and ignored the Maniacs. (Merchant's 2003 House Carpenter's Daughter is among my favorites of the new century.) I was surprised when Noisetrade offered a free download to celebrate the band's 35th year on the road, as I had assumed 10,000 Maniacs to be defunct. I'm happy to be wrong and I'm anxious to dip into a 2015 release titled Twice Told Tales, which consists entirely of covers of traditional songs.
The Maniacs have just two members left from the original 1981 lineup: bass player Steve Gustafson and keyboardist Dennis drew, though drummer Jerry Augustyniak has been with them since 1983. Merchant's replacement, Mary Ramsey, sang with the band from 1994 to 2001, left, and returned in 2007. Though she lacks Merchant's deeper dark tones, she compensates in the higher ranges and is quite a talent in her own right. As in the 1980s, you'll find 10,000 Maniacs called things such as: college rock, soft rock, folk rock, and alt-rock. My own handle for them is sunshine pop, by which I mean they are the kind of outfit that seldom challenges us, but are always entertaining—hummable songs wrapped in jangly guitar, heavy-on-the-first-beat percussion, soupy keyboards, smooth lead vocals, and harmonies that add more texture than power. For Crying Out Loud offers seven tracks from post-Merchant albums: the sweet "Ellen" from Earth Pressed Flat (1992), the dancey "These are the Days" from Our Time in Eden (1992), and "Shinning Light" and "Love Among the Ruins" from the 1997 album named for the second song (which enjoyed modest chart success). What is especially heartening, though, is that the album's best two selections are its most recent ones. "Triangle," from the 2013 album Music from a Motion Picture is both a lovely song and a well-crafted one that opens with an acoustic guitar/piano mix, subtly adds instruments, and builds to its swelling bridges. And I'm happy to report–as noted above–that 10,000 Maniacs are still infusing new life into old songs—their cover of "She Moved through the Fair" from the new record is moodily atmospheric and has thoughtful enhancements that interject just the right among of newness without destroying the song's time-tested integrity–like a flash of electrified fiddle and some soft blips that are the electronic equivalent of underpainting.
It's welcome back time for 10,000 Maniacs. They never strayed, but I went away for a few decades. Is this stuff cutting edge? No–but in an age of white noise, failed experiments, paint-by-the-numbers power pop, running-on-empty hip hop, and brain-dead major labels, there's joy in hearing a band that just gives us our money's worth.