Friday, November 23, 2012

All Of The Pep And Meaning Missing Before Is Found In Our Time In Eden.

The Good: Richness of musical sound, Lyrics, Most of the vocals
The Bad: Somewhat vocally repetitive, Does not hold up as well as one might think.
The Basics: A good album that continues to decline in my mind with each listen, this is a (mostly) solid musical work for fans of pop-rock.

As I move toward the Natalie Merchant c.d.s I have sitting on my desk to review, I had thought to start my exploration of her career with a few 10,000 Maniacs discs. That was going well, until I listened to In My Tribe (reviewed here!) and found myself terribly and completely bored by the music. This was almost enough to keep me from listening to and reviewing Our Time In Eden, the other 10,000 Maniacs disc I had kicking around.

I am, mostly, glad that I did. The first listen offered a world of difference between In My Tribe and not just because I knew more tracks on Our Time In Eden - I was in high school when the album was released and "These Are Days" and "Candy Everybody Wants" were well-played on the radio in those days. The "mostly glad," though comes in the form of the effect of listening to the album repeatedly for four days (broken up by a primer on Paramore and a Paramore concert!) and finding it more and more average than the original impression. It's still a good album, a little above average, but it is not the astonishingly good work I heard on the first listen.

With thirteen tracks clocking in at 48:37, Our Time In Eden is a solid pop-rock endeavor by the 10,000 Maniacs, Natalie Merchant's vehicle band. The quintet wrote three songs together on this album, with three more being co-written by Merchant and Dennis Drew of Rob Buck. The other seven are credited to Merchant alone and she sings the primary vocals as well as plays the piano on the album. The four men of the band provide the musical accompaniment and they are not credited with anything else. No one from the band is credited with production or mixing credits, so it is hard to evaluate how much this work reflects the artistic intentions of the 10,000 Maniacs vs. the record label. Given the strength of Natalie Merchant's personality in interviews, it seems like it would be hard to argue that this is not her artistic vision as so much of the album falls under her creative control.

Our Time In Eden is an intriguing combination of the rebellious ("Candy Everybody Wants"), disillusionment ("Eden"), loss ("How You've Grown") and youthful enthusiasm ("These Are Days"). Thematically, there is a somewhat unifying theme of opportunities lost across the entire album. This is an album that largely involves cycles and people turning away, aging, moving on. To that end, the album works remarkably well, especially under the pen of Natalie Merchant.

On songs like "Jezebel," Merchant fearlessly tells a musical story with a wrenching sense of honesty rarely seen in pop music. With lines like "To think of my task is chilling. / To know I was carefully building the mast I was wearing for two years, searing I'd tear it off. / I've sat in the dark explaining to myself that I'm straining to hard for feelings I ought to find easily" ("Jezebel"), Merchant articulates with a realism and psychologically horrific honesty what few artists do. "Jezebel" sings about the coldness that comes when one realizes they are not in love and instead of degenerating into a typical pop-rock breakup song, it carefully explores the conflict that comes from not feeling.

Similarly, "I'm Not The Man" is a song about a death row inmate! While folk-rock and even country music might make a song about a wrongly accused person waiting to die, only Richard Marx's "Hazard" comes to mind as a similar song in pop-rock. But there it is, with lines like "On the day he was tried no witness testified. / Nothing but evidence, not hard to falsify. / His own confession was a prosecutor's prize, / Made up of fear, of rage / And of outright lies" ("I'm Not The Man"). And it works to close the album off better than most would think!

The contrast, of course, between the largely conceptual and bigger world themes comes with the universal tracks, like "These Are Days." Perhaps a graduating high school student's favorite, "These Are Days" simply exhorts listeners to live and enjoy the time they are in with lines like "These are days you might fill with laughter until you break. / These are days you might feel a shaft of light make its way across your face / And when you do you'll know how it was meant to be. See the signs and know their meaning." It's simple, it's direct and it's hard to not relate to the "everybody's alive, so live" message of the song.

Vocally, the album is dominated by Natalie Merchant and this is both good and is one of the problems with Our Time In Eden. On this album, Merchant presents her vocals as an almost universally mid-range collection in the alto and tenor ranges. She has a huskier voice, one with force behind her making it a very natural comparison to Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane (or Jefferson Starship). Merchant has a wonderful singing voice.

The problem is it is almost entirely absent from this album. While initially I enjoyed the very full sound of the album, the more I replayed it, the more I noticed that Merchant's voice is cleaned up and produced over on most of the tracks. Production elements like reverb and backing vocals that almost drown out her voice undermine the quality of her natural talents. Indeed, only the first half of "Eden" has a truly worthwhile presentation of Merchant's natural vocal talents (she performed at the first concert I went to!) before the backing vocals and other elements begin to encroach upon her sound.

That's not to say it is bad, but it is very much pop rock in the vocal department. Most of the tracks are up-tempo numbers with only the piano solo "How You've Grown" standing out as a slower, mostly vocally-driven track.

But the vocals seeming pop-oriented is truly no surprise given that the rest of the album sounds purely pop rock. This is a guitar, bass, keyboards and drums band with a generally upbeat sound and the ability to move an audience with the infectious tunes it puts out.

The problem is, even on this album some of the songs sound alike. When "Few And Far Between's" first notes play, I always think it is "Candy Everybody Wants." "Stockton Gala Days" could be the archetypal pop-rock sound, in that it is easy to listen to, has a sense of movement and having listened to this album eight times now, I am troubled to note that I have no idea what I'm hearing when I hear that song. I could not pick it out of a line-up; it is a generic pop-rock theme and it feels like one with its hypnotic bassline, somewhat bland drumming, and lack of a real tune.

Ultimately, that's how Our Time In Eden wore down on me. It stands out as dramatically better than some other albums, like "In Our Tribe," but I found it barely above average; a solid seven on my usual ten-point scale.

The best track is "Eden," the low point is the generic "Stockton Gala Days."

For other, former female Artist Of The Month reviews, please check out my takes on:
Goodbye Alice In Wonderland - Jewel
The Best Of The Songbooks - Ella Fitzgerald
Break Every Rule - Tina Turner


Check out how this album stacks up against others I have reviewed by visiting my Music Review Index Page where the reviews are organized best to worst!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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