Saturday, August 29, 2009

I Had No Idea: 10,000 Maniacs' Hope Chest (1982-1983)

I guess consider this an 'old music' style post but, keep in mind that I literally just picked up this album this past week, so where I know all those other albums front to back, this one is extremely fresh to me in comparison.

As a kid who came of age as a music fan in the early 90's, all I knew of 10,000 Maniacs was their hit cover of 'Because the Night' and it wasn't my cup of tea. A few years later, I recognized that voice on another modern rock radio staple and while it was a nice little melodic ditty, I still wasn't sold.

So, when I really dove into rock music and my preferred sound of the late 1970's and 1980's new wave era, I kind of skipped over 10,000 Maniacs because I figured they were not of the style that I knew I liked. I can honestly say that I don't know what prompted me to re-investigate them. I have been on somewhat of a jangle kick recently so, in my constant search for whatever I'm liking, I did a random search about the Maniacs on AMG, previewed some tracks on Amazon and decided I had unfairly passed them over.

So, I thought, start at the beginning...

I picked up the Hope Chest album because it compiles the band's first EP (Human Conflict Number 5) and full length (Secrets of the I Ching) onto one disc and is much more easily available than finding the originals.

Imagine Johnny Marr playing guitar on the first Throwing Muses album and throw a sort of sporadic reggae slant into the mix and you have the first recordings of 10,000 Maniacs. It's your basic new wave formula for something that, by all reasonable logic, shouldn't work, but does because of the simplicity of the arrangements and tunes.

Unfortunately, it is one of those albums where the first song is so outstanding and unique and what follows is just not as good. But what a track that first one is. 'Planned Obsolescence' is standard new wave bassline and simple drumbeat dominated greatness. Robert Buck's strangely effected guitar warbles and squabbles its way through the song, acting as little more than a confusion while Natalie Merchant's dominating voice takes the lead melody. She sings in these strange sentence fragments and never seems content to stay on one note for more than two words. The entire thing comes to a brilliant head when she finally blurts out in the second half of the tune that 'Any modern man can see that religion is obsolete' and the tune's true melody comes out from behind the shadows. A wonderful slice of seemingly subtle atheist rock.

The rest of the album is much more along the lines of what the Maniacs would end up sounding like. They were still a little faster and a bit more freewheeling at this point, but, for the most part, there's a little bit of softly strummed guitars and a whole lot of Natalie Merchant's captivating voice. She's clearly the star of the show, but she's never overbearing or intrusive to the rest of the band. Instead, they both compliment each other exceptionally well.

Take a song like 'Poor De Chirico' where the band goes back and forth between a lovely jangle and an organ-laced roots reggae groove, but atop it all is Natalie's swooping vocals. When the thing explodes into an honest-to-goodness guitar solo, you'd be hard pressed to to call the band middle of the road or unwilling to take chances.

Other highlights for me are the wonderful jangle of 'Grey Victory,' the original less-floaty version of 'Tension' (which would be revived later on as 'Tension Makes A Tangle'), the great rant on 'Daktari' and pseudo-funk of 'Pit Viper.'

Overall, this material has a genuine charm to it because it has shades of where the band would go afterwords, but there is something entirely unique about them. Kind of like the same vibe I get from R.E.M.'s Chronic Town EP, as it's clear that the band is not really a new wave group. But they came about in the period that punk and new wave was the dominant cutting edge rock movement and their primary influences all came from those kinds of bands. So, even though the urge to play something else was there, they still couldn't push past that new wave influence quite yet and subsequently made something completely remarkable.

I mentioned earlier about how the band, at this point seemed anything but middle of the road or unwilling to take chances, but it seems like the more records they made, the more they became of both of those things. Not that that's a bad thing. If you find something that works, why change it?

I went back a few days later and picked up The Wishing Chair, the band's second full length and first album on a major label. There is definitely a more pronounced slant towards the folk rock and jangle pop that they would become known for. The reggae influence is gone and there are plenty of interweaving riffs; so it's basically the album where they became an alt-rock band. Fine and good for that sound, but simply nowhere near as engaging as the earlier material.

Maybe I will delve further into the band's catalogue after a full digestion of Hope Chest and The Wishing Chair, but right now, I'm basking in a really great (re?)discovery.

Seal of approval? Why not! It's certainly a great album!


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