Monday, December 17, 2012

Mediocre Live: 10,000 Maniacs Fails To Sell Me With MTV Unplugged.

The Good: Some lyrics, Decent production (to make songs different from the album versions)
The Bad: Moments of voice, Live conceits
The Basics: It might have been incredibly successful at the time, but 10,000 Maniacs MTV Unplugged is an utterly unmemorable live album.

As I finish my Artist Of The Month exploration of the works of Natalie Merchant, I end where I began, with an album of Natalie Merchant from when she was a part of the band 10,000 Maniacs. Ironically, given how popular it was in my teen years, I had never actually heard the 10,000 Maniacs MTV Unplugged album before now. Now, after a solid eight listens, my verdict is simple: I’m not missing anything by not adding this to my permanent collection. In fact, listening to the MTV Unplugged, I am not entirely convinced that I even like the 10,000 Maniacs.

The 10,000 Maniacs MTV Unplugged album suffers from being largely indistinct. When one is not focusing on actually listening to the actual songs, this album completely blends into the background of one’s day as an auditory mush. This is very much an indistinct listening experience with songs blending together in an unmemorable, homogenous way. Songs bleed together with Natalie Merchant’s narcoleptic performance of 10,000 Maniacs sounds backed by guitars, violins, and very subtle percussion.

With fourteen tracks clocking out at 61:14, 10,000 Maniacs’ MTV Unplugged is essentially a soundtrack to the live event MTV sponsored with the band in the early 1990s. The live album showcases the talents of 10,000 Maniacs from when Natalie Merchant was integral to the band. The album is an obvious precursor to Merchant’s solo career as all but one song – the Bruce Springsteen cover “Because The Night,” which was one of the big singles off the album – are at least co-written by Natalie Merchant. She provides all of the lead vocals on the album and some of the pianowork. The rest of the instrumentals are provided by the rest of the band and a few guest musicians.

Instrumentally, MTV Unplugged is a mediocre pop-folk album. The 10,000 Maniacs on this album is presented as a quietly plodding along garage band that seems to exist solely to support the vocals of Natalie Merchant. Outside the haunting violins on “Eat For Two,” the instrumental accompaniment mostly drones along to keep tempo for Merchant and foreshadow for the fans which of their favorite songs is coming up next. As the opening strains of “Candy Everybody Wants” come up, the crowd goes wild. The album is produced to highlight the live nature of the experience (as if the listener would not believe it were live without the noises of the crowd) and the instrumental accompaniment seldom breaks out to add distinction to the songs. The sound of each song – save the second – is so similar to the others on the album that MTV Unplugged managed to create a truly indistinct musical experience. 10,000 Maniacs does not present their most diverse setlist on MTV Unplugged, with most of the songs being slower, ballad-style, droning pop songs.

Vocally, Natalie Merchant dominates MTV Unplugged. Her voice is low and strong. She is articulate and she presents all of the lyrics very clearly. While she seems to have decent lung capacity and a pretty good range, I was surprised in really listening to the album how many times I caught vocal inconsistencies that made it onto MTV Unplugged. At one point in “Because The Night,” Merchant’s voice actually cracks!

Lyrically, 10,000 Maniacs presents nothing especially new on MTV Unplugged. Most of the songs are musical storysongs, complete with characters and themes. Merchant and Rob Buck, who co-wrote most of the songs, seem to have something to say and they say it well. Songs like “What’s The Matter Here?” stand out with distinct lines like, “We live on Morgan Street; / Just ten feet between and his mother, I never see her, / But her screams and cussing, I hear them every day. / Threats like: ‘If you don't mind I will beat on your behind,’ / ‘Slap you, slap you silly.’ / Made me say, ‘O, what's the matter here?’" Thematically, MTV Unplugged allows the 10,000 Maniacs to showcase their diversity with songs ranging from child abuse as a social epidemic to making the most of life (“These Are Days”) to desire (“Candy Everybody Wants”).

Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs also makes a memorable song about the promises of pregnancy with “Eat For Two.” When Merchant sings “They found each other in a wicked world / Strong in some respects / But she couldn’t stand for the way he begged and gave in / Pride is for men, young girls should run and hide instead” (“Eat For Two”), the listener is carried by her voice on a vision of a parent watching her child grow up in fast forward speed.

But MTV Unplugged also illustrates how repetitive and simple some of 10,000 Maniacs’ songs are and that makes it a harder sell than it otherwise might have been. MTV Unplugged is not terrible, but it is not the best work by 10,000 Maniacs and it is hardly the album to get new listeners into the group.

The best song is “Eat For Two,” so many of the other songs gel together indistinctly, making it hard to pick a low point.

For other works by and including Natalie Merchant, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Our Time In Eden - 10,000 Maniacs
In My Tribe - 10,000 Maniacs
Jealousy (single)


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

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