Sunday, November 18, 2012

Thoroughly Bland Pop-Rock Mars 10,000 Maniacs' In My Tribe (My Next Female Artist Of The Month!)

The Good: Moments of lyrics, Moments of voice
The Bad: Musically boring, Does not "say" anything unique
The Basics: The 10,000 Maniacs present a musically dull, vocally stunted album with wonderful lyrics that offers little to a new listener.

As I gear up for an immersion in the musical works of Natalie Merchant, I decided to prep myself with a few 10,000 Maniacs c.d.s. Before I picked the two up that I have, I had never heard a full disc by the 10,000 Maniacs and my experiences with Natalie Merchant were limited to her solo radio efforts and my first concert, where she was one of the headliners (she does an awesome cover of "Wonderwall," by the way). I like much of what I've heard from Merchant and when I picked up In My Tribe, I was surprised to find that every song on the album was written or co-written by Natalie Merchant. It made me wonder why she couldn't live with the band and went solo (much like Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty).

Is it possible that the four men who provide the musical accompaniment to Natalie Merchant and/or the ones - most notably Robert Buck - who co-wrote with Merchant demanded too much for her artistic integrity to handle? I'm sure there is a whole backstory, song and lore told about the 10,000 Maniacs that clarifies all of that, but it's not on this disc. Instead, In My Tribe presents a light pop-rock sound that could be virtually any college band and after eight listens, I'm still trying to find what it was that made this band even a remote success. The only song I knew from this disc before playing it was "Like The Weather" and I am unsure when I actually knew it from.

With eleven tracks clocking in at 43:31 minutes, In My Tribe seems very much to be the intellectual and creative work of Natalie Merchant and the 10,000 Maniacs, with the band writing and performing all of the songs. While none of the band is credited with the production half of the album, there does not appear to be any serious evidence of creative differences on the album. Thus, 10,000 Maniacs seems to bear the responsibility for their own sound and album.

It's boring.

In My Tribe is boring. I'm on my ninth listen as I write this and there is nothing interesting or truly distinctive about the album. I've been listening, trying to find what the hook was, what made this band stand out and I don't hear it. Natalie Merchant could seem like the Grace Slick of 10,000 Maniacs, but her voice is produced to lose some of its weight and the entire album has a strangely narcoleptic quality to it.

What generally works are the lyrics. The songs on In My Tribe tend to tell musical stories and there is a folk-rock quality to the writing on the album, with songs like "The Painted Desert" illustrating a higher level of diction than most pop rock songs. With lines like "The Painted Desert can wait till summer. / We've played this game of just imagine long enough. / ... When I'm sure the rain has ended, the blooms have gone, every one killed by the morning frost. Is a cactus blooming there upon the Northern Rim or in the ruins of the Hopi mesa dens?" ("The Painted Desert") 10,000 Maniacs illustrates that they have something to say and they use an uncommon level of imagery. This is a refreshing change from most bands that sound like they might be most successful on the college radio circuit.

But more than just with imagery, the group explores some essential human sense of struggles. On the opening track about child abuse, Merchant plaintively asks, "Answer me and take your time / what could be the awful crime / he could do at so young an age? / If I'm the only witness to your madness / offer me some words to balance out what I see / and what I hear" ("What's The Matter Here?"). Not since Suzanne Vega's Solitude Standing which contained "Luka" have I heard an artist or group so fearlessly tackle such a difficult subject. That is admirable and it works here quite well.

What doesn't are the tracks that seem more commercial. "Don't Talk" is a terribly repetitive song with Merchant repeating "Talk talk talk about it, / you talk as if you care / but when your talk is over / tilt that bottle in the air . . ." so much that by the time one gets to the third listen to the song, all one hears is the somnambulic presentation of "talk" and shuts the song out.

Perhaps the lyrics would be better presented if the voice backing them were more . . . variable. The reference to Grace Slick is not a bad one. Natalie Merchant has the ability to present a sense of force to her voice that is quite powerful. Unfortunately, it never comes into its own on In My Tribe. Instead, the mixers and engineers keep Merchant's voice carefully balanced to the volume of the instrumentals. While there are songs like "My Sister Rose" where the instrumentals drown out the vocals, there is no reciprocal track on the album where Merchant effectively takes out the instrumentals. Instead, for the bulk of the album, Merchant is given the same weight as the instrumentals and she fails to shine.

The net effect of the vocals is a sense that Merchant is muted. Even without having heard Merchant since, on her own, there is a clear sense that this is a voice that can be doing more than it is on In My Tribe. It sounds like it is filtered, pacified. That makes the vocals boring, stilted. We hear the potential, but it is never actualized. Instead, we wait for it to erupt and actually SING, but instead it musically "says" the lines.

The closest to breaking free Merchant gets vocally is "A Campfire Song," which features Michael Stipe of R.E.M. His performance on this album instantly reminds one of his songs and musical place from the I.R.S. years (encapsulated on the album reviewed here!). Merchant and Stipe play off one another well and even though Merchant never fully breaks out, Stipe's background vocals are distinctive and he sounds remarkably free in his vocal presentation.

What drags the album down even more than the vocals is the instrumental accompaniment. 10,000 Maniacs on In My Tribe accompany Merchant's voice-full-of-potential with guitars, bass, keyboards and drums in a presentation that is oh-so-dull. It seems like including everyone on each track is a priority and as a result, the sound of each song is remarkably similar to every other one on the album.

The drums from Jerome Augustyniak seem especially dull and indistinct. On "City Of Angels," he bangs his drums lightly in a way that seems calculated only to remind the listener that there is a drum present, as opposed to saying anything musically important or relevant with the drum part. In other words, this is a musically bland presentation.

None of the songs have terribly distinctive melodies and the end result was after several listens, I'm not entirely certain I could pick out a single song if I heard a muzak version of it. Come to think of it, without Merchant's - even muted! - vocals, this 10,000 Maniacs album might best be described as as musically interesting as musak. And who truly needs that in their collection? Most of the songs are slow and sound like a mellow, artistic garage band.

I have no idea who might like this other than people who want music to fall asleep by and those who like vaguely melodic musical presentations that will not leave anything so memorable as an impression upon the listener. Perhaps the reason Merchant eventually struck out on her own was more that she woke up and the rest of the group was still asleep and she went onto the next gig, more than any real creative differences . . .

The best track is "The Painted Desert," the worst is the repetitive and poppy "Don't Talk."

For other, former, female artist of the month reviews, check out:
The Best Of Janis Ian (2 CD + Exclusive DVD) – Janis Ian
“Jackie’s Strength” (Single) – Tori Amos
Beginnings - Shania Twain


For other music reviews, check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

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