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10,000 Maniacs

10,000 MANIACS REVIEWS:

Hope Chest: The Fredonia Recordings 1982-1983 (1990) / The Wishing Chair (1985) / In My Tribe (1987) / Blind Man's Zoo (1989) / Our Time in Eden (1992) / MTV Unplugged (1993) / Tigerlily (1995) / Love Among the Ruins (1997) / Ophelia (1998) / The Earth Pressed Flat (1999) / Motherland (2001)

CONCERT REVIEWS:
Natalie Merchant Live: Woodinville, Wash. August 6, 2010
Natalie Merchant Live: Seattle, Wash. June 22, 2012


Hope Chest: The Fredonia Recordings 1982-1983 (1990)

Album Score: 10

This compilation released in 1990 contains remixed tracks from 10,000 Maniacs' 1982 EP Human Conflict Number Five and their 1983 debut album Secrets of the I Ching, which were released independently before signing onto a major label. All Music Guide reviewers would have you believe that these are terrible albums, but don't pay any attention to them; you'll only think these songs terrible if you think their classic songs are terrible. They sound fundamentally the same here as they did at their peak in the late '80s and early 90's: groove-happy hippies who have just gotten out of a rotten marriage.

However, there are a few weird stabs at reggae/ska in here, which is a tangent they (thankfully) never expanded upon. You might think they would have handled reggae decently well; after all, they are best known for their tight grooves. But they stink to high heaven. I can't even fathom what was going through their minds when they decided to play that cliché reggae groove in “National Education Week” so dang slowly. It's so lumbering that it's uncomfortable to listen to. They greatly improved the groove in another reggae take-off, “Anthem For Doomed Youth.” However, that must be the only song in 10,000 Maniacs history in which the lead vocals were sung by a man, and he couldn't sing for crap. But those are the only two poor songs of this 14-song release. I would say that's pretty good.

Natalie Merchant fans ought to be pretty pleased to know that she sounds exactly the same here as she always does. She was just 17 or 18 at the time, but she had already found her groove. Perhaps she comes off as a bit timid, but her characteristic vocal styling is here, fully developed. Her caramel voice is rife with fluid-like intonations, which sometimes makes these melodies sound like they were made up on the spot. Although I have a feeling I only get such an impression when the melody was poor to begin with. “Grey Victory” for instance, is a groove-happy ditty, but the groove isn't catchy. Making matters worse is the lead guitarist who sloppily plays notes up and down the scale, which completely litters things up. Yet, there's Merchant, singing over them as though she hadn't a care in the world, and she manages to mine quite a few hooks out of it.

Speaking of the lead guitarist, holy crap, this guy had some bad ideas. Not only did he do these weird, sloppy, scaley things on other occasions in this album, but he's also responsible for an annoying rubbery effect on “Planned Obsolescence.” Such an effect could have been cool, but the execution of it was terrible, and it's mixed in way too loudly. It's no real surprise that the guitars were reduced to merely playing very polished and straightforward grooves in future 10,000 Maniacs releases.

That said, the whooshy thing the guitarist does on “The Latin One” is very cool, and that is the reason that is my favorite song on the album. It's kept in the background, where it belongs, and doesn't interfere with the overall groove. (I guess the guitarist's “experimentation” was bound for at least one good idea!) I would suspect most of their fans would favor “Katrina's Fair,” which sounds like a classic 10,000 Maniacs song in every sense. The groove is clean and happy, and Merchant's sails over it in that carefree manner of hers.

“Daktari” is an interesting attempt at tropical music. The groove is a cliché, and the guitarist does that sloppy scaley thing over it again, but it's fast paced and a lot of fun to hear. Unlike the reggae, I wouldn't have minded so if they tried this brand of tropical music later on in their career. (Break out the pineapples!) “Tension” is another highlight. It's light, hooky melody as well as the high-pitched way Merchant sings it makes it sound like it could have been one of the lesser songs from Parallel Lines.

Even though this is 10,000 Maniacs in their formative years, it's a good album. It's very rough around the edges, and they try experimenting with some interesting genres, not always successfully, but that's not a good reason to shun this from your record collection. If you like 10,000 Maniacs, you're going to like this release. It might not be their best body of work, but it's a good body of work. You'll like having it around.

Read the track reviews:
Hope Chest: The Fredonia Recordings 1982-1983


The Wishing Chair (1985)

Album Score: 11

Even from the beginning, I had the sense that 10,000 Maniacs always knew what they wanted to sound like. That sound is strewn all over this record—catchy grooves, jangly guitars up the wazoo, and splendidly carefree vocals from Natalie Merchant, the singer with the voice of melted caramel. In the debut, I described her as sounding rather timid, but that quality had left her entirely at this point. It sounds like she had at least 30 years to perfect her voice for this album.

They rerecorded a few songs from their debut, which I suppose makes it conveniently easy to hear how much they improved. In “Grey Victory,” you can hear Merchant's vocals really take command over that fun, jangly groove. The jangly groove itself has also improved considerably; it still has a little bit of the intentionally-sloppy nature of the original, but it's integrated more in the background. Thus, the unusual texture is still there, but it also doesn't distract us from Merchant's singing.

My favorite song here has got to be the opener, “Can't Ignore the Train,” which is what I consider to possess the band's quintessential sound. If you're outside on a cool day and feeling comfortable enough with yourself to dance around with some music, then that's the song you should listen to. Merchant's melodies all sound made-up-on-the-spot to me, but that's one of the main reasons why these guys sound so dang carefree all of the time. Unfortunately, that also means she can be somewhat inconsistent at delivering potent hooks—but at least “Can't Ignore the Train” has its fair share of them.

“Back O' the Moon” is another one of my favorites even though it's pretty much the exact same thing as “Can't Ignore the Train.” But I won't criticize them for repeating themselves. How can I? They found such a nice sound, and I want them to mine it as much as they can. They even seem to resort back to that carefree vibe when they're not really trying; “Scorpio Rising” utilizes some darker and grittier guitar, but it turns out to be no match for the inner happiness that's welling out of it.

Despite the huge sonic improvements over their debut, I wouldn't be surprised if longtime fans still consider this to be primitive. Indeed, the guitars don't sound at all like they're made out of crystal, which they do in In My Tribe. It's for that reason I also wouldn't count this among their greatest album's. However, there's one thing that this album has that the others don't: its mild tendency of experimentation. I know, I already said they pretty much cemented their final sound by this release, but they do occasionally try a few things here that I don't think they would have even dared in future albums.

“Just as the Tide Was a Flowing” was an interesting attempt to combine their groove-happy ways with Medieval folk. “Arbor Day,” the closing song, is a waltz. ...However, by far the most uncharacteristic piece here is “The Colonial Wing,” which actually succeeds at being dark and edgy. To be sure, you'll still hear a trusty old jangle in it, but it's tighter and more violent. If you stick around for the middle, you'll get to hear a hearty smattering of distortion guitar. Merchant also sounds uncharacteristic of herself. Rather than that usual, high-on-life persona, she's singing with some intensity, reminding me a little bit of Janis Joplin.

Despite the “primitiveness” of this album, it clearly deserves to be considered among their classics. I mean, songs like “Can't Ignore the Train,” “Scorpio Rising,” “Maddox Table,” “Back O' the Moon,” “Grey Victory,” “Cotton Alley,” and “Tension Makes a Tangle” are difficult to argue with. Perhaps they're not perfect, but they all leave me with nothing but a big ole smile on my face. I probably wouldn't make this my first 10,000 Maniacs purchase—make it one of their later ones—but if you eventually find these guys to be irresistible, then there's no doubt you'll find The Wishing Chair to be irresistible as well.

Read the track reviews:
The Wishing Chair


In My Tribe (1987)

Album Score: 11

10,000 Maniacs' second album for a major label was the one that put them on the map—this is where they polished their sound and started writing songs that a lot of people seem to love. And it's not much of a stretch of the imagination to see why people love this; these are some of the most happy-go-lucky songs that I've ever listened to! Of course, Natalie Merchant's singing is one of the primary appeals; her velvety chops have a bit of a melancholic twinge to them, which helps keep these songs from sounding too much like they were overdosing on anti-depressants. There are a lot of nice songs on this album, but there's only one that makes a huge impression on me.

That is “Hey Jack Kerouac,” which has a fantastic melody. Did that happen on purpose, or was it by accident? I can't be too sure with these guys, since so many of their melodies sound like they were made up on the spot. Merchant, as always, is the star of the show, and sings this loveable melody with an unstoppably carefree vibe. I also love listening to the way they cleaned up their production values for this disc—their watery, jangly guitars come through my speakers so cleanly that they're the musical equivalent of looking through a cool mountain spring. As always, most 10,000 Maniacs songs are groove-based, and this is one that I happen to bob my head with most agreeably to. ...If you only listen to one of their songs, make it that one. I don't think they ever topped it.

Nothing is better than “Hey Jack Kerouac,” but “What's the Matter Here?” does make for a lovely album opener. It's perfect music to listen to when you're going for a walk in the springtime. (Why don't more people go for walks in the springtime? It beats the hell out of going to the gym and having to deal with all those sweaty people in spandex.) “Don't Talk” could be the darkest song of the album since portions of the rhythm section come off as pounding and doom-ridden, and there's a bit of rough-ish guitar providing background texture. But of course, Merchant's lead vocals come in to remind us that everything is OK. Particularly as she carries us into the more upbeat chorus. The melody is lovely, too!

Despite my constant descriptions of these songs as being “upbeat” and “happy,” I get a much different impression of them when I read the lyrics. Many of them seem rather upset or cold. For example, in “Like the Weather,” Merchant sings ”The color of the sky is grey as I can see through the blinds / Lift my head from the pillow and then fall again / Shiver in my bones just thinking about the weather / A quiver in my voice as if I might cry.” Other than that, it sounds like the freaking happiest song I've ever heard. ...The disconnection between the lyrics and the music perplexes me. ...Perhaps I shouldn't think about it anymore.

The crystal clear production values are excellent throughout this album, but that quality can backfire when the songwriting isn't quite up to snuff and it starts to sound sterile. That becomes a problem mostly in the last half of the album. “Gun Shy” is a mid-tempo song with a forgettable melody and ho-hum instrumentation. (I mean, the instrumentation consists of jangle guitars and drums... Like pretty much every other song here.) “My Sister Rose” has a vaguely tropical vibe, and its production is so squeaky clean that it seems rather cheesy to me.

The final two songs are probably my least favorite, although it doesn't seem like they should be. “City of Angels” is a soaring ballad where Merchant is singing like a larger-than-life diva. Unfortunately, the melody is very forgettable, and thus I get a bit bored sitting through it. Even worse is “Verdi Cries,” which is the album's only piano ballad. The instrumentation is quite beautiful, in particular the string quartet that plays warmly in the background. However, a minute into it, my attention wanders off something fierce. Zzzzzz...

This score was very close to a 12. Compare that to the score of The Wishing Chair, which was a weakish-11. What kept me from upping the rating is the album's lack of diversity and the weak second half. But seriously, these ratings only matter in my numbers-obsessed brain. If you have a penchant for happy-go-lucky, jingle-jangle music, then In My Tribe could be more effective for you than Prozac. Check it out! (...That is, unless you actually have a chemical imbalance... I'm not suggesting you go off your meds, or anything... Remember folks, Tom Cruise is full of crap.)

Read the track reviews:
In My Tribe


Blind Man's Zoo (1989)

Album Score: 12

Our favorite groove-happy hippies are back, and they haven't changed much. Just like In My Tribe before it, the majority of these songs are upbeat and bubbly, and lead singer Natalie Merchant sings them as though she were recording the soundtrack to a series of anti-depressant commercials. The instrumentalists are polished, very radio-friendly, and not terribly imaginative—but does anyone really want the instrumentals to distract us too much from Merchant's singing? ...Er, well, I certainly wouldn't mind something like that. I love Merchant's singing voice, an opinion that I share with every sane and reasonable person on the planet, but it's difficult for me to deny that this instrumentation sometimes comes off as sterile.

I also, for the life of me, can't understand how they can write such depressing lyrics while choosing to perform them in such a happy manner. I mean, they perform “Please Forgive Us” as though they had just gotten a new puppy. Those are some of the brightest guitars imaginable, and Merchant couldn't possibly sound more carefree singing it. And yet, if you look at the lyrics, you'll discover that they're about the friggin' Iran-Contra Scandal. ...Is that some kind of bait-and-switch? ...But then again, I suppose I would rather hear an upbeat song as opposed to a depressing one, no matter what the lyrics are. The secret here is to not pay attention to the them. ...Unless you actually care what 10,000 Maniacs think about the Iran-Contra Scandal, which was already two years out of the news at the time of this album's release. There was even a new president in the White House, played by Dana Carvey.

One thing they improved from their previous album is the song diversity. Even though there is still a tendency for this album's upbeat songs to all sound alike, the addition of a few relatively unusual songs keeps the experience just a tad more interesting for me. With that said, one of the “unusual” songs isn't terribly great. That's “Headstrong,” which is a big bowl of meh. I appreciate the fact that they attempted to orchestrate it predominantly with mildly distorted guitars, which is very much outside of their comfort zone, but they didn't do it right. The biggest problem I have with it are those really loud drums that tend to drown everything else out.

“Jubilee” on the other hand is an extremely beautiful and forlorn, six-minute ballad that's orchestrated with a gently arpeggiating acoustic guitar, a harpsichord, and a full string quartet. The lyrics of course are verrrrry serious—this time about depressing Biblical things—but the music actually matches them. It also has a great melody that continues to show Merchant on top of her game as the world's premiere liquidy vocalist. With that said, I wouldn't be too shocked if there are a lot of listeners who feel that song is too slow and lumbering. They would probably prefer a song like the upbeat and insanely catchy “You Happy Puppet.” I wouldn't blame them, because that's an excellent song and my favorite pick of the album. It encompasses everything that makes these guys well-loved: upbeat grooves and a happy-go-lucky melody.

Another thing they improved from their previous album are the melodies. As a whole, they're catchier and seem more deliberately planned. I don't get nearly the impression that they were made up on the spot like I did in all of their previous albums. I might not like a song here as much as I liked “Hey Jack Kerouac” on previous album, but a few come awfully close. “Eat For Two” is one of their more infectiously upbeat tunes. “Trouble Me” is mid-tempo and quite pleasant to sit through. “The Lion's Share” has another lovely melody that the fans are sure to find tasty. “Dust Bowl” is a rather beautiful ballad with music that fits the mood of its lyrics, which are about the … er ... Dust Bowl.

Yes indeed, there aren't a whole lot of songs here that I don't like, and I'm feeling the need to give this album a higher rating than In My Tribe. Simply put: this album doesn't seem to lag quite as much as that one did. This assessment seems to be going against the common critical and fan consensus; most people seem to call Blind Man's Zoo little more than a weak carbon copy of its predecessor. While I'm not going to deny that it is essentially a rewrite, I'll put this to the jury: So what? This is hardly the first time in the history of music that a band has ever rewritten one of their albums. I do recall Genesis rewriting the same album four times until they perfected it with the best album of their career, Selling England By the Pound. And, for my money, that's what 10,000 Maniacs have done here. Except it's not as good as Genesis.

Read the track reviews:
Blind Man's Zoo


Our Time in Eden (1992)

Album Score: 11

Well, here it is: The final 10,000 Maniacs studio album to feature lead singer Natalie Merchant. After the subsequent tour (and a live album), she would leave the group to embark on a solo career. That's why, for a lot of people, this was effectively their final release. I mean, the band continued on without her, but they had the cumbersome task of finding a new female singer to replace her. ...Except, of course, it's difficult to replace someone who was the heart and soul of the band in many people's minds. Why did she have to leave the band anyway? I suppose it was because all the band wanted to do was freaking jangle all the time. How can anyone function under such conditions?

The one thing they did excellently here was adopting a far more atmospheric and melancholic tone to their music than they had throughout In My Tribe, which perfectly fits the tone of their lyrics. (I'm sure some 10,000 Maniacs fanboy is still shaking his/her head at me for thinking that their music and lyrics don't match sometimes.) But anyway, everything in Our Time in Eden is just about right; bittersweet lyrics are paired with bittersweet music, and optimistic songs are paired with optimistic lyrics. The matchmaker made some pretty good matches!

“These Are Days” is one of the optimistic songs. If you don't believe me, I'll provide you with some of its lyrics for proof. (“These are the days you'll remember / Never before and never since, I promise, will the whole world be warm as this / And as you feel it, you'll know it's true that you are blessed and lucky / It's true that you are touched by something that will grow and bloom in you.”) The instrumentation is not only sunny, but it is also thick and atmospheric enough to provide a healthy haze... You know, like those hazes you sometimes breath on a cool summer day? Naturally, their choice of instrumentation is jangly guitars, bright electric organs, and upbeat drums. And of course Merchant's liquid singing gives it character. Nothing has changed, except I don't remember the atmosphere being quite so distinctive. It's a lovely song, and surely one of my favorites of theirs.

“Noah's Dove,” the beautiful album opener, isn't quite so bright, even though the rhythm sections is toe-tapping. (“You won a prize for that / For telling lies like that / So well that I believed it / And I never felt cheated / You were the chosen one / The pure eyes of Noah's dove / Choir boys and angels / Stole your lips and your halo.”) Merchant's singing is a little more reserved, and the jangle guitars are more laid back and left in the background. The melody is OK, but nothing that I'll ever find myself humming underneath my breath anytime soon... It's a song more memorable for its atmosphere than melody, but the atmosphere is nailed perfectly.

“Few and Far Between” would have been a typical groove-happy 10,000 Maniacs composition if it weren't for a full horn section playing throughout. That was a superfluous touch but one that managed to put it over the edge for me! (I'm not one who's going to say “no” to an awesome horn section...) The horn section has a second-coming for a cute ditty called “Candy Everybody Wants,” and it's still awesome. “Jezebel” is kind of an unusual song, because it's intermittently a morose piano ballad and an upbeat jingle-jangle tune. Most of their other songs seem to have a tendency to find one tone and stick with it for its duration, but not that one! ...Although perhaps that wasn't such a grand idea, since it seems little more than two separate songs that were haphazardly spliced together. There's no transition to speak of, and they don't quite seem to fit.

While this is a remarkably consistent album, I do have one big complaint about it: Despite a few touches here and there, these songs don't make huge, lasting impressions on me. After I'm through listening to the album, there's only one song that I know that I loved listening to, and that is “These Are Days.” Moreover, when I'm halfway through the record, I realize that I'm getting a bit bored with it. Sure, it's a lovely thing for me to put on in the background when I'm doing other things, but there's not much about it that actively engages my attention when I'm up to the task of listening to it intensely.

Reviewing this album cements the position of Blind Man's Zoo, handily, as my favorite 10,000 Maniacs release. Its melodies were far catchier and its songs were more diverse. Most importantly, I never got the impression that I was tired of listening to it midway though. ...Nonetheless, Our Time in Eden is a good album and surely a credit to their legacy. If you're a maniac for 10,000 Maniacs, then this is another jewel for your collection.

Read the track reviews:
Our Time in Eden


MTV Unplugged (1993)

Album Score: 11

Natalie Merchant was on her farewell tour with (the band), and they decided to stop by good ole MTV to participate in their unplugged series. I've listened to a few albums in this series, and there's one thing that's clear to me: 'Unplugged' is more of a guideline than a rule. Nobody was apparently going to stop them from plugging in an electric organ and giving that bass guitar a little bit of amplification. ...Eh, why should they have, anyway?

With that said, quite a few of these songs that sound radically different than their studio counterparts. Sometimes I shrug my shoulders at the reinterpretations, but there are other times when it was clearly for the better. “Don't Talk,” which was a cloudy and rather danceable pop song originally from In My Tribe, is mellowed out loosened. For my money, it improves the atmosphere. It also gives Merchant the opportunity to come off as more contemplative as she sings its rather sullen lyrics. They give a similarly loose interpretation of my favorite song of theirs, “Hey Jack Kerouac,” but in that case, it comes across as too cluttery to my ears.

The song that's the most different than its studio counterpart—and perhaps shockingly so—is “Eat For Two.” The original was a polished and jangly dance number that was perfect fodder for every popular college-rock radio station of the era. This live version, on the other hand, is a ballad with a Middle Eastern flavor injected into it. It certainly lacks the energy and charisma of the original so I wouldn't necessarily call it an improvement, but I still greatly appreciate the opportunity to hear such a vastly different interpretation of it. Most of the material they play here was from their latest, greatest Our Time in Eden, and those songs tend to be the most similar to their studio versions. “These Are Days” was one of their most exceptionally bright, optimistic, and upbeat songs. It's just a mite looser than its studio counterpart and the drums aren't nearly as pronounced. “Candy Everybody Wants” is also very similar to its studio version except, to my dismay, there's no horn section!

When I saw Merchant in concert in Summer 2010, she gave somewhat lengthy narratives before nearly every song she performed... And with the spoken narrative introduction to “Gold Rush Brides” that can be heard here, it shows as plain as day that she had been engaging in such practices for awhile. Though I can't say her narrative, about babies being born, is terribly interesting, but at least it doesn't last long. That song also happens to be one of their nicer ballads from Our Time in Eden, and it's a pleasure to hear again.

They close the album is a surprisingly mellow rendition of “Noah's Dove.” ...I thought the original was quite mellow as it was, but this one just goes all out in mellowness. I mean, if it were more mellow, I would think the band would stop moving entirely. Merchant starts it off by playing the main riff with a slow piano before the guitarists and drums finally kick in to give it a bit of body (but not too much). I would call it a lovely rendition for sure, but it would have been even better if they gradually gave it more momentum as it reached its conclusion. This is a fairly long song, and hearing its loose mellowness consistently throughout gives me the predilection to space out through it... Though it at least guides my thoughts in a few nice ways. I should mention that they don't perform anything from albums prior to In My Tribe, which is a bit surprising to me. Don't they like their early work? Or maybe they forwent performing those songs out of respect for their fans, most of whom probably didn't buy The Wishing Chair when it was still hot off the presses.

I stepped into this live album thinking it wouldn't be too terribly exciting. ...Well, it's not very exciting, depending on your definition of the term. Even though they mellowed down a few of their more danceable numbers here, such treatment usually made their songs seem more appropriate for their usually somber lyrics. The band, for the most part, is in tip-top shape, lending a few delicate textures to their songs that hadn't been heard in their respective originals. However, there are a few moments when the band just gets too jumbly for my tastes... but what can I say? Nobody's perfect. Not even Natalie Merchant is perfect even though she has a prissy, yuppie talking voice. ...But I really can't ask anything more out of her singing voice, which has never sounded smoother. Without a doubt, this live album is an absolute must for 10,000 Maniacs fans. Even if live albums aren't your thing, I think you would appreciate the sometimes vastly different takes on some of their most classic songs.

Read the track reviews:
MTV Unplugged


Tigerlily (1995)

Released by Natalie Merchant

Album Score: 8

Nobody gets more respectable than Natalie Merchant. However, if she were the figurehead of a major advertising campaign, she would have been a perfect fit for Wonder Bread. Why? Because her music is as plain as can be. Now, of course, there's nothing wrong with Wonder Bread. It is one of the three fundamental components of a proper peanut butter and jelly sandwich. However, after listening to Tigerlily, it's only too apparent that Merchant left behind her peanut butter and jelly when she left 10,000 Maniacs.

If my horrible analogy was too stupid for you to have read, I'll put it to you this way: Natalie Merchant is boring without the band. Not only is she boring, but she didn't even write significantly different music than she did with them, which makes me wonder why she even bothered leaving them in the first place. ...I mean Peter Gabriel's first album spoke for itself why he wanted to leave Genesis; he had a unique voice of his own that he wanted to unleash onto the world. Natalie Merchant's voice, on the other hand, was either the same thing as it was in 10,000 Maniacs' or the band didn't muffle her out whatsoever.

Or perhaps she just wanted the independence? It's a bit like how Canada got independence from the UK. Sure, it happened, but did the Canadians change much as a result? And holy crap, her band is terrible! Ugh!!! … To be nice, they hit all the proper notes and everything, but there's nothing even remotely interesting about them. They're absolutely sterile, like a bad CCM backing band. As a matter of fact, having listened to a boatload of CCM music in my time (gag), I'd venture to say that most CCM backing bands are more interesting than this one.

But maybe that's exactly the way she would have it? Nobody's ever allowed to overstep their boundaries lest they overshadow her liquidy vocals and whatever the hell she's singing about in the lyrics. (I couldn't be less interested in her lyrics.) Boring piano. Boring guitar. Sleepwalking drums. ...They only play cleanly and conservatively, rarely allowed to create a groove or an atmosphere. ...That is, apart from “Carnival,” which has a little bit of both. If you only have passing knowledge of this album, then “Carnival” is probably the only song you know from it. That's because it's the only memorable song here! It was something custom-made for the mid-'90s adult-contemporary radio set-list.

When it comes down to it, I wouldn't care so much about boring instrumentation and ill-aimed lyrics if it weren't for the lack of good tunes. Good tunes, of course, comes #1 in my list of priorities—a principle I continue to hold in spite of the barrage of e-mails I get from people telling me how dumb that is. (In Blind Man's Zoo, for example, I gave it all the credit in the world for the excellent melodies in spite of the ill-aimed lyrics.) But unfortunately, Merchant comes up woefully mediocre in Tigerlily. And of course by “mediocre,” I mean that most of these tunes would have worked fine on a high school kid's senior project. But Merchant is all grown up now, so why should I bore myself?

Do you see how I'm going through this whole review so far without mentioning any songs by name except for one? That's because it would require me to actually go through these songs and listen to them again. And I think I've done enough of that. My brain feels like it's about to reject my body from all of the boredom I've been subjecting it to lately. If you go through the song reviews, I was at least kind enough to give most of these songs B-s or above... As I said in the opening paragraph of this review, these songs are respectable. By golly, I'll sooner murder Santa Claus than give a respectable song a mediocre rating.

Although when it came to the overall album rating, I had to knock it down from its slated score, a 9, to an 8. The songs work best if you don't listen to them back-to-back. I also find it kind of weird I'm not clicking with this album since I normally eat up this female singer-songwriter stuff up for breakfast, lunch and dinner. If you look a look at the contents of my iPod, you might think I'm breeding them in there. What's more, I still like Merchant's singing voice. I at least can't claim I didn't want to like this album. It's all Natalie's fault, of course; she dropped the ball. She wrote a bunch of tame, lame, and stale songs. They're not *bad* as much as they are forgettable. I'd say the album is OK to put on in the background, but little else.

Read the track reviews:
Tigerlily


Love Among the Ruins (1997)

Album Score: 10

I guess you really don't know how to miss something until it's gone. This is the first 10,000 Maniacs album sans Natalie Merchant, and I will not tell a lie: I kind of miss her! Although maybe that's just because I was expecting too much to hear Merchant's signature caramel-brass tones through all this familiar jangle-pop, but what I got instead was far more feathery. Now, don't get me wrong: I like Mary Ramsey's voice. I'd wager that the band found just about the best replacement that they possibly could... However, it did take me a little while to get used to it.

I'm going to suppress that chorus of naysayers who think that 10,000 Maniacs shouldn't have gone on without Natalie. Need I remind you that she was the one who left them to embark the world's most boring solo career? Also, without Merchant calling all the shots, it gave them the chance to write happy, carefree music with—get this—lyrics that actually match. Get yourself a whiff of these lyrics from the title track and bask in their loveliness:

(The sky was falling, heaven was calling / When danger crashes, rose from the ashes / Like two statues hidden inside ancient rock / We were praying for the secrets to unlock / And when the sun had turned its back on us / In the dark our love kept track of us / Pushed together by the lack of love / We held each other tightly through our hell of dreams / I still hear the never-ending echo of those screams / But it's a life no made for reliving / It's a live that makes your soul forgiving / We sealed our bond from the beginning)

But that leads me to discussing the main problem with this album: There are songs that are happy, but there are also songs that sound like they belong in a series of commercials about anti-depressants. When I listen to this album, all I can see is images of smiling people who are standing outdoors with their arms outstretched and sniffing air. Also, these songs are so polished and lightweight that they really start to approach sterile territory. They're not too sterile, mind you; I can stomach it. However, if you're not already prone to liking music that can be featured on anti-depressant commercials, this is album is hardly going to inspire you to start. Perhaps the main issue I have with these songs is that they're all so faceless. When this album is through playing, I can hardly recall any of them.

The exception to that is their version of Roxy Music's “More Than This.” But that's cheating, because I'm a massive Roxy Music fan, and I know the original by heart. (I had a physics teacher once who whenever he reached the end of a particular topic in his lectures—I'm not kidding—would say “there is nothing more than this.” Purely evil.) Of course, 10,000 Maniacs' version of the song in no way approaches the Roxy Music original, but it's nevertheless a very sweet and jingly rendition of it that I enjoy listening to. I also like watching their music video of it, which incidentally proved to me one thing that I had been suspecting: Merchant's vocals might reign supreme over Ramsey's, but Ramsey is far more girlfriend-able. I mean, Merchant would want to spend our whole date sitting in a posh restaurant and talking about the good old days with Bill Clinton and all he did for this country. It's a stretch, but such a date would prove even more boring than listening to Tigerlily. A date with Ramsey, on the other hand, would be full of merry laughter and whimsey! Why, I believe Billy Wilder once made a movie starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn kind of like that.

[Insert awkward transition here.] There's no diversity on this album whatsoever. That's why I'm at the end of this review already and I only bothered mentioning two of its songs by name. Where are the melancholy ballads? I guess that was Merchant's strong suit, and she took them with her when she left the band. (...and subsequently MURDERED ME WITH THEM all throughout Tigerlily.) Nevertheless, with or without Natalie, perhaps just one or two melancholy ballads in the mix would have made more of a well-rounded album? Didn't they think Ramsey could pull it off? Believe me, women who I choose to date in my fantasy life can pull off a melancholy ballad brilliantly.

But anyway, I do very much like listening to this album. That should have gone without saying. How exactly does one go about not liking something as pleasant and carefree as this? Disliking this album would be like disliking a warm, sweetly scented breeze in the springtime. It's just not something that people should do! If you like happy jangle-pop and you happen to find this in a used record store for a couple of bucks, then I'd definitely pick it up. Don't expect it to move your world, but do expect it to be very, very nice.

Read the track reviews:
Love Among the Ruins


Ophelia (1998)

Released by Natalie Merchant

Album Score: 10

In the play Hamlet, Ophelia was the character who went mad and drowned herself in a shallow pond. If this album might have been meant to illustrate what must have been going through her mind, could it be that all she wanted to do was to listen to something upbeat? I like forlorn ballads as much as anyone, but an album full of that is so... what's the word... mature. If I were 18 years old right now, I'd probably tell you that I was not old enough to enjoy an album like this. I would have closed the review by telling you to see me in 10 years to gauge what I think. Well, it happens to be 10 years later as we speak, and I still think I'm too young for this. When ever am I going to grow up? I guess I'll have to continue to give The Sweet's “Ballroom Blitz” periodic listens: The moment I stop enjoying it will be the moment I'll start to fully enjoy Natalie Merchant.

But I do like this album. Mostly. I like it waaay more than I liked Tigerlily, at least. I realize that makes me about only person in the world who thinks that, and I'll take that as further evidence that God has never intended me to be a Natalie Merchant fan. ...Just an admirer, I suppose. I admire her how I would admire a picture of a serious-looking lady in a black dress, sprawled over a piece of furniture. ...Well, I never want to stare at that picture too long, I suppose!

One of the main issues I raised with Tigerlily was its woefully underwhelming instrumentation standards, and that aspect has been improved SUBSTANTIALLY here. Instead of those pedestrian, adult-contemporary tones of blandness she gave us throughout Tigerlily, now we have nice things like orchestral swells, grandiose-but-somehow-still-subtle cymbal hits, and guitar solos with just a wee bit of distortion to them. I also think the melodies tend to be more interesting this time around. I remember I made a similar comparison of Blind Man's Zoo to In My Tribe, which is an opinion I seem to be virtually the only one in the world to have. Most of you read my reviews armed with a salt shaker, right?

I guess I should talk about the songs, or something. I really like “Life is Sweet.” It starts out really slow and kind of boring—which is sort of typical—but it's not too long before a drum-beat pipes up and I start to hear an atmospheric string section start to swell in background. By the end, Merchant is singing loudly and passionately, and it all gets kind of... er... magical. Although, once that string section is in full gear, it becomes pretty obvious that we're listening to a modified version of “Pachelbel's Cannon.” However, doesn't every artist use that (infamous?) chord sequence at least once in their careers? So, let us call this the best “Pachelbel's Cannon” rip-off ever since The Pet Shop Boys covered “Go West” by The Village People. (OK, I know someone's out there rolling their eyes at me.)

Of all the songs here, “Kind and Generous” sounds the most like it could have been on the radio since it has a pretty catchy hook right at the beginning of the song, and it also has quite a polished, adult-contemporary feel to it. But why does the verses section have to be so slow and uneventful? It's a pretty nice song, but the entirely forgettable verses totally miss the mark for me. (I might not be too surprised if the lack of radio staples is the main reason the vast majority of critics view Ophelia as a disappointment.) I quite like “King of May,” however, even though it starts out like a church song. It starts off with Merchant singing along to some long electric organ chords, but if I stick with it for a few minutes, I start to get into that melody and—as I'm doing so—notice that the string section behind it is flowering into something quite lovely. Another nice moment is the final track, “When They Ring Them Golden Bells,” a throwback to dust-bowl-era folk songs that Merchant duets with Karen Pearis, the lead singer of The Innocence Mission. (That's a great band, by the way—I have fallen head-over-heels for plenty of their songs, and Pearis' voice is really one-of-a-kind, so it was great to hear her!)

Oh, and Ophelia has its fair share of relative clunkers as well. The worst of them is a piano ballad called “My Skin” that Merchant sort of mutters 'touchingly' to a bare piano. I just can't get into that one. The title track is a pretty decent tune, but quite long-drawn-and and a rather underwhelming way to open an album. “Frozen Charlotte” has kind of a cute shuffle to it and some pretty guitar at the beginning before giving way to some washier guitar in the middle. However, I'm not long into it before my attention span drifts off. (Pearis sings briefly in the chorus for that song... funny how I didn't notice her there at first.)

In the end, Ophelia is an OK album. It's quite long, and pretty much every song on it is slow and “mature.” The instrumentation might have improved greatly from Tigerlily, but it still seems like she has a ways to go before she fully gets it right. (Instrumentation never seemed to be a problem when she was with 10,000 Maniacs! Maybe she should never have left them?) If you're a grown-up, you'll probably like this. If not, then let's listen to some Kiss.

Read the track reviews:
Ophelia


The Earth Pressed Flat (1999)

Track Listing:
The Earth Pressed Flat A- / Ellen B+ / Once a City B / Glow B / On and On (Mersey Tune) A- / Somebody's Heaven D / Cabaret B / Beyond the Blue B / Smallest Step B- / In the Quiet Morning B / Time Turns D / Hidden in My Heart A- / Who Knows Where the Time Goes? B+ / Rainbows C+

So, something has happened to me in the period of time I reviewed 10,000 Maniacs' previous release Love Among the Ruins and this one: I'd become familiar with some John & Mary albums. John & Mary used to frequently open for 10,000 Maniacs at concerts, and the “Mary” was Mary Ramsey, the very same person who replaced Natalie Merchant on lead vocals. Moreover the “John,” was guitarist John Lombardo, who was a founding member of 10,000 Maniacs, but he left the group after not liking the bands' foray into politics. After Natalie Merchant had left, I guess Lombardo felt the coast was clear, so he ended up getting absorbed back into the group he'd left all those years ago. This is what I get for not doing my research earlier!

However, this information is good to know, especially for people who might still bear a grudge towards Ramsey for taking over the beloved Natalie Merchant's role. I mean, this band deserved to be able to keep going after Merchant decided to leave them, don't you think? She didn't own them. And Ramsey was about as appropriate as a replacement as they ever could have gotten. Anyway, it turned out that post-Merchant 10,000 Maniacs weren't so much into releasing albums; Love Among the Ruins had been released to mixed reviews as it was, and this 1999 follow-up consists only of songs that were left off that album.

So yes, this album is like a scattershot grab-bag of songs that reminds me of searching through a $3 movie bin at Wal-Mart in hopes of finding something appealing. (I once found Lost in Translation in one of these bins, so these searches do yield positive results sometimes!) The first song on the album, the title track, is probably the best of them. Although I dislike that low-pitched, long organ note that it opens with. However, it quickly turns into a loose and breezy jangle-pop tune, so it eventually gets back into my good graces! Its melody makes an OK listen but it's ultimately forgettable, but at least Ramsey turns in a sweet vocal performance. A couple other songs I enjoy here is “On and On (Mersey Tune)” and “Hidden in My Heart,” which are... er... both loose and breezy jangle pop tunes with an OK melody. (By the way, this is the album review I was working on when I decided to completely stop doing track reviews. I'd finally gotten sick and tired of writing track reviews for albums whose songs all sound alike.)

One piece that does stand out here (for obvious reasons!) is a cover Sandy Denny's “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” That's wonderful source material, of course, and they do manage to 10,000-Maniacs-fy it a bit by loosening the instrumentation. Ramsey's vocals are pretty, but of course they don't quite measure up to the haunting quality of Denny's original. The reason I could only give it a B+ (despite the original being an A or an A+) is that it comes across as a bit flat.

I only talked about the good songs so far! It was a good thing many of these songs were left off of Love Among the Ruins, but after listening to them here, I think they should've been left off of this album too. “Somebody's Heaven” is characterized by this droning, ultra-fuzzy guitar that annoys the ever-loving crap out of me, and Ramsey's vocal melody is only one line repeated over and over until she reaches a sort of halfhearted attempt at a chorus when she tries to sing as high-pitched as she possibly can. If Hell has a soundtrack, then I think I've found it. “Rainbows” is a loose, jangly instrumental that's not bad to listen to as much as it bores me out of my skull. “Time Turns” is............ oh a weird, dreary dirge with a quiet, droning accordion, backwards guitars, and a sparse drum. Horrible. Other songs here make altogether pleasant listens, such as “Cabaret” and “Beyond the Blue” and “Smallest Step” and whatever else I didn't mention. But they're also quite empty and don't make much of an impression on me.

As a whole, this bag of leftovers might not be a bad find for people who are 10,000 Maniacs fans or--more accurately—fans of Love Among the Ruins. And it's really not so horrible, anyway. It just that the only songs here that prompt any kind of emotional response from me are the ones that are so terrible they drive me nuts. So I'm sorry, but 8/15.


Motherland (2001)

Released by Natalie Merchant

Track Listing:
This House is on Fire A / Motherland A / Saint Judas A- / Put the Law On You A- / Build a Levee A- / Golden Boy B+ / The Ballad of Henry Darger A- / The Worst Thing B / Tell Yourself A+ / Just Can't Last B+ / Not in This Life A / I'm Not Gonna Beg A-

At long last, Natalie Merchant releases an album that I can actually like. That is, it's filled with consistently good melodies, lively arrangements, and songs diverse enough that I can actually tell them apart from one another. One of these songs here is even a bit... er... happy. That is, it gives me a bit of joy listening to it. Can you imagine that? Naturally, of course, the album is also filled its fair share of miserable dirges in it, but this is Natalie Merchant, and asking her to come out with an album without at least one dirge would be like asking Sesame Street's Elmo to deliver a monologue without making an idiotic giggling sound.

By the way, that song I'm getting so excited about is called “Tell Yourself,” which is buried in the album for some reason. Not only is the instrumentation upbeat, but the tune is one of the best that Merchant has ever written. It isn't terribly complicated. The melody is fluid-like, the chord progression is simple, and the orchestration consists of only acoustic guitars, walking bass, drums, a minimal lead electric guitar, and an organ playing thick chords deeply in the background. But it all comes together beautifully, and it melts my heart in the process. Even the lyrics dish out a lovely lesson for teenage girls who have image problems. (Consider that a public service, because God knows the world is loaded with plenty of teenagers with image problems.) (“Tell yourself that you're not pretty / Look at you, you're beautiful / Tell yourself that no one sees Plain Jane / Invisible me, just tell yourself, tell yourself / Tell yourself you'll never be / Like the anorexic beauties in the magazines / Like a bargain basement Barbie Doll”.)

Maybe the thing more exciting than a song I can completely stand behind is the fact that I like every single one of these songs. The worst thing I can say about this album is that it has “The Worst Thing” on it, which happens to be the song here I like the least. Indeed, that's one of the album's dirges; its subdued instrumentation puts me to sleep and there's nothing special about the melody to help keep my brain occupied. However, one dirge I happen to enjoy quite a lot is the haunting and cinematic “Henry Darger,” which is about the outsider author and illustrator of In the Realms of the Unreal, a 15,145-page book.

One of my favorite songs here is handily the opener “This House is On Fire,” which features some bending Middle Eastern strings and Merchant belting out the lyrics in such a threatening way it's as though... well... the house is on fire, and she's the Greek goddess who's singing about it out of the flames. That's followed up with the title track, a tunefully gentle waltz that features some warm accordion. “Put the Law on You” is more of a slow blues with some awesomely heavy acoustic guitar, a walking bass-line, and a melody that manages to find a few decent hooks or two. (Maybe the main reason I like it is that it reminds me so much of those blues songs Procol Harum used to do in the '60s!) Another one of the album's happier moments is “Not in This Life” where she uses a jingling guitar, and she gives it a terrific chorus.

Not only is this Natalie Merchant's finest solo album, but I'd say it also rivals her prior work with 10,000 Maniacs. It's far from perfect, but it is nevertheless a diverse and wonderfully orchestrated album and features melodies that I find quite enjoyable. If you're even on the fence about the idea of listening to Natalie Merchant, I'd take a gander at this. 12/15. By the way, what's the deal with female singer-songwriters from the '90s, and why does it seem to be that I tend to prefer their less-popular '00s albums? This is a pattern I've been noticing quite a lot lately.



Natalie Merchant Live: Woodinville, Wash. August 6, 2010

This concert marks a number of firsts for me. It was the first concert I've been to in almost four years. It was the first concert I've been to since moving to the Pacific Northwest. It was the first concert I've been to where people drank wine instead of beer. (The venue was a winery, but I still found it weird to watch people drink wine en masse at a concert. Like they were all some sort of upper class ninnies.) It's also the first concert I've been to where the band's only drummer played an acoustic guitar most of the time.

That last one was apparently a first for a number of people sitting around me at the concert who seemed to be gutted that she wasn't playing very much of her groove-happy 10,000 Maniacs material. But unfortunately for them, those days were long behind her. She had matured into a refined folk singer. After opening with a few selections from her post-Maniacs solo career (by name, the only one I can remember is “Carnival”), she played only selections from her latest album, Leave Your Sleep, until the encore.

That album is a collection of poetry for children from the 19th and 20th centuries set to original folk or Americana music. It's safe to say that if you like The Kinks' Muswell Hillbillies, you'll also like Leave Your Sleep. The instruments on stage reeked of sophistication: at intermittent times, I saw a cello, violin, clarinet, saxophone, tuba, keyboard, accordion, and several acoustic guitars. She would precede each song with a slide show and a short lecture about each one of the poets. (It was almost like I was in high school again!) An educational slide show during a pop concert is another first for me. I'm used to projections on stage being animated or live video captures of the stage. But nope. For once a concert managed to add brain cells rather than subtract them.

Fortunately, all the songs she wrote were excellent, so getting a tiny lecture before every song was OK by me. However, the restless, wine-drunk crowd surrounding me apparently begged to differ; a few people surrounding me started to boo her late in the two-and-a-half hour concert. In particular, I noted a few raucous calls of “No more poems!” from someone sitting behind me. I was sitting rather far away from the stage, and I do hope that people within earshot were kinder.

I was never much of a 10,000 Maniacs fan, which is probably one of the reasons I found that to be rather rude. Shouldn't everyone just be satisfied with hearing her excellent, velvety chops, as strong as they ever were, in person? We were also able to watch her slowly waft around the stage, dancing with her characteristic, fluid-like motions. I mean, it's not like the concert was terribly expensive (less than $40). I paid $100 to see The Rolling Stones, which is why I was personally treated to their greatest hits set list! But Natalie Merchant for less than $40? She can play what she likes.

Naturally, she wasn't going to leave these nostalgia seeking people empty handed, and there was a short set of 10,000 Maniacs material in the encore. It was nice, to me, that one of these songs happened to be the only 10,000 Maniacs song I find memorable in any way, “Hey Jack Kerouac.” Not that I don't enjoy listening to those albums, but after listening to all of them back to back two months ago, that's the only song that managed to stick with me. Someone sitting close to the stage apparently requested that song, and she claimed that she hadn't performed it in 10 years. She had to sing the lyrics while turned to her band, guiding them through it. She performed other songs from her 10,000 Maniacs days, some of which were met with widespread cheers, but as I said, only one 10,000 Maniacs song ever stuck with me, so I can't remember what they were. But they had nice melodies, so I was enjoying them.

So there it is. Unlike every concert I've been to in the past apart from Sarah McLachlan (I still don't know why I decided to go to that), I wasn't so much a fan of the artist in question. But despite that, it was a highly enjoyable concert. And, I feel as though I must stress this, it's the only concert I've been to that gave me some new brain cells.


Natalie Merchant Live: Seattle, Wash. June 22, 2012.

The problem with most people who try to bootleg concerts is that they tend to have the disposition of a frightened mouse. What we need are bootleggers with balls of steel! Who will stop at nothing to get the most amazing footage that they can possibly get! But alas. As soon as one of them gets called out, they cower back into their little holes in the floorboard. What I mean is, if this guy at the Natalie Merchant concert stood his ground and kept recording her, he would have had a YouTube video that could only have been described as magical. It would have featured Merchant in the middle of singing either “These Are Days” or “Wonder” suddenly stopping to confront a guy sitting in the fourth row who was recording her with his iPhone. She slitted her eyes and said something like this to him: “Are you recording the whole set? ...You know, I've been watching you for some time.” Well, the bootlegger being the gutless wonder that he was put his iPhone away. I guess he was worried that the wrinkly volunteer ushers who walk like they have bowling balls tied to their ankles would throw him out on the streets or something. Seriously, I don't think I saw any serious bouncer-type people at this event. What was he afraid of?

Merchant sang another bar or so of that song when she stopped again to further humiliate this man. “You weren't even watching the show!” she said. “You were just watching me on a tiny screen.” Then she decided to throw some local politics into the mix. “What are you doing with an iPhone anyway? Isn't this supposed to be a Microsoft town?” She continued to sing more of the song, but she was frazzled and forgot one of the verses. She turned back to him for third time and said: “I bet you wish you got this footage--the time that she forgot her own lyrics! ...As a matter of fact, I wish you still were recording this, because this is the funniest I think I've ever been. I would have asked you for a link.”

By the way, that wasn't me who bootlegged the concert. How I am managing to get precise quotes from Merchant is simply that I'm not. You see, I'm a failed journalist and therefore don't have any qualms about publishing inaccurate quotes from people I see at concerts. However, I kind of wish I recorded just a portion of this so that I could have told you for certain whether she went on this tirade in the middle of “These Are Days” or “Wonder.” I do know, at least, I heard both of those songs performed that evening, and they were among her very few upbeat tunes. Another upbeat tune she sang was “Kind and Generous,” which ended the show. One song she didn't perform that evening was “Carnival.” In fact, someone yelled at her in the middle of the show to sing it, but she claimed she didn't know it. (That's a massive lie, by the way. Merchant's hair might have suddenly turned gray since I saw her last in August 2010, but she did do “Carnival” then. No way could she have forgotten it so quickly. That is, unless she was joking. Does Natalie Merchant joke?)

Another reason that it couldn't have been me illegally recording the concert was because I wasn't sitting in the fourth row. Rather, I was in one of those balcony side-boxes. It was the same kind of balcony side box that President Lincoln was sitting in when he was assassinated. And I had an absolutely SCARY view of the seats below me. So I was also trying to recall the name of some old movie I saw depicting a man plummeting to his death off one of those things. (Alfred Hitchcock? I think?) The railing only comes up to the knees, and the space was quite cramped. Not exactly a recommended spot for people afraid of heights. But I did like sitting there, being able to scan the vast rows of people. I was gladdened to note, as a balding 29-year-old man, that there are many, many, many baldies in this world.

Most songs Natalie Merchant performed this evening were selections from her most recent album, 2010's Leave Your Sleep, and she performed them alongside the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. The bootlegger-confrontation incident I described above happened during the 'encore,' which was just Merchant singing with a piano player and an acoustic guitar player. By far, this 'encore' was my favorite portion of the show, and that wasn't only because I found the bootlegger confrontation amusing. Her pop music seems more fitting when it's--er--pop music. That's nothing against the orchestra, of course. They were fantastic. They all probably had college educations. But shouldn't an orchestra play Shostakovich or something?

What I mean is an orchestra seems awfully bored when all it has to do is play pop songs. These are dozens of people sitting around with instruments who have the power and the know-how to recreate SHOSTAKOVICH... but what they're doing instead is producing extremely simple textures that might as well have been played with a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and perhaps a fiddle player who also seconds as an oboist. Oh, I know the Leave Your Sleep album was played with an orchestra, but when I listen to the album, I'm not watching anything. So I don't notice that there's an abundance of people participating who know how to play Shostakovich.

I also want to point out that songs #1 and #3 of her set-list were based strongly on Pachelbel's Cannon. The first was “The Land of Nod” from Leave Your Sleep and the third was “Life is Sweet” from Ophelia. I still really like “Life is Sweet,” and Merchant's performance of it was HUGE. You know how she sings that chorus really BIG on the album? She does that on the stage, too.

Her 2010 album was filled with her own adaptations of old poems, and most of these poets from whom she'd extracted poems, such as E. E. Cummings and Shakespeare, are dead. However one of them, Jack Prelutsky, author of “Bleezer's Ice-Cream,” is still alive. And wouldn't you know it? He is a Seattle resident and was present in the audience that night. He was seated somewhere in the back; I couldn't quite pinpoint him, even from my bird's-eye view. Merchant tried to get him to come on stage to perform his poem, but I guess he wouldn't or couldn't. What he did do, however, was holler lines of it at her. ...I don't know if it was more amazing that I heard a semi-famous author scream at Natalie Merchant or whether I'd finally learned what it sounds like to hear someone scream from the back of a symphony hall to the front. And here is what it's like: It echoes like the dickens! Thank goodness whoever constructed that building put the stage at the correct end.

My favorite song she performed that evening was one I've already mentioned: “These Are Days.” That was only one out of three 10,000 Maniacs-era songs I recognized. The other two were “Verdi Cries” and “Gold Rush Brides.” Those are selections from excellent albums, but I sorta shrug my shoulders at them. They're kind of dull, aren't they? But clearly members of the audience were excited to hear them. As each of them were starting out, she'd gotten exceedingly hearty rounds of applause for them. You see, none of Merchant's new songs got such a response. So I think they made it pretty clear to her: The new stuff is only worth sitting through to get to the old stuff. (I think the presence of an orchestra probably put her off from performing too many 10,000 Maniacs songs. But that's easily fixed. Next time, why not ask the trombonist to bring a jangle guitar with him? There were already a couple of trumpet players, so we won't miss a trombone. Another idea: I noticed that there were tons of violinists in that orchestra. Why not ask one of them to bring a tambourine with them? You can simply ask the remaining violinists to play louder.)

I can report she performed waaaaay more of her older material at this concert than she did when I'd previously seen her perform in 2010. And that was with a traditional rock 'n' roll band. I mean, I think she might have only performed one 10,000 Maniacs song back then (which was a very unrehearsed version of “Hey Jack Kerouac”). So really, three 10,000 Maniacs songs constituted an avalanche. She'd also performed quite a few selections from her solo albums Tigerlily, Ophelia and Motherland. So I would say her entire career was pretty well covered that night. Among the songs I heard, there was “River,” “Beloved Wife” (which made the guy sitting next to me cry), and “The House is On Fire.” She also danced quite a bit in that way she dances. That is, gliding and wafting around the stage with her dress lifted over her knees and doing a lot of curtsying. That curtsying is something to behold indeed.

Some lady yelled at Merchant to take off her shoes, but she said back to her: “I don't want to soil my pink stockings.” That comeback got a huge laugh from the crowd. But seriously, why did they laugh? Can't Natalie Merchant afford another pair of stockings? The reason that I personally wouldn't want to dance around on stage in pink panty hose is because I'd be worried about slipping on the floor and breaking my coccyx. But I guess it's microscopic granules of dirt and dust that she's concerned about. And what is she saying about the custodians at Benaroya Hall? That they don't do a very good job sweeping the floors? Come on: Seattle might have been the city that begot grunge, but that doesn't mean nobody sweeps their floors around here.

Really, pretty much everything Merchant said got hefty laughs from the crowd. I remember making fun of the audience in a Joan Baez live album from the early '60s for laughing at certain “statements” that I guess were taken as hilarious jokes. Thankfully compared to Baez, Natalie Merchant is Bill Cosby, so I found all of this to be tolerable. And you know I've already expressed my thoughts that the bootlegger confrontation was priceless.

I guess also Merchant is one to hold a grudge; she complained during the show about someone stealing her umbrella at a restaurant's coat-check earlier that day. A fan sitting on the aisle in the front couple rows tried to console her by donating an umbrella (or fanbrella), but Merchant refused it saying “You're from Seattle--you need that more than I do.” She continued whatever song she was in the middle of but decided that the umbrella issue was bothering her too much, so she accepted the fanbrella after all. She opened it and dance around with it for a bit. At the end of the show, she gave it back stating it wasn't the most practical prop she's ever worked with. (I guess she's no Gene Kelly.)

There was another point when an audience member sitting in the first row plopped a booklet made out of construction paper on the stage, and Merchant immediately came over to see what it was. It turned out to be a homemade craft from a seven-year-old girl who came all the way from Florida to see the show. ...Her distance as well as her age had me seething with jealousy. I mean, I thought I was special for having traveled 1,400 miles to see David Bowie when I was 21. But how many miles is it from Florida to Seattle? It might as well be 12,000,000. I'll never be able to top that. ...But then again, I don't suppose this seven-year-old actually drove all this distance. She probably got here by an ae-ro-plane. Posh. And I bet when she gets home she's going to play a grand pi-an-o. My 1,400 mile journey, on the other hand, was pure blood, sweat, and tears. A true journey for the ages. And I sent David Bowie my scrapbook in the post, because I didn't want to interrupt the show. So take that.

Anyway, I can't think of a proper way to end this review, so I'll just end it. I kind of doubt too many readers made it this far in this review, anyhow. But by any chance you have, then congratulations! Here is your prize: A fabulous, brand new car (that you buy yourself)! I still don't really consider myself a Natalie Merchant fan (as some you might have surmised), but this was an enjoyable concert for me. I'd say there was adequate coverage of her earlier material to keep her longtime fans satisfied, and her newer songs were pretty good as well. Especially “Bleezer's Ice-Cream.” And those lyrics are pretty funny, so believe me I relished the chance of hearing its author scream at the show. My only complaint is that I wish the concert was a little more... er... upbeat. Especially its first half when all she did was sing along with a stuffy orchestra. I respected it like I respect things in a museum, but pop concerts should be more exciting, dang it! Yes, even Natalie Merchant ones.


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All reviews are written by Michael Lawrence.