Hope Chest: The Fredonia Recordings 1982-1983 (1990)
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Planned Obsolescence B
This song pretty much represents what is held as my stereotypical view of 10,000 Maniacs. It consists of a constant bouncy groove while a young Natalie Merchant, with her characteristic caramel vocals fully developed, sings a breezy melody that sounds almost made up on the spot. The instrumentation is alright, except there's a bizarre rubbery guitar wobbling throughout it. It seems cute at first, but I get tired of it pretty quickly. The groove also gets tiring to me. They had to strip away everything except the bass and the singing in the middle of the song, which is usually a poor strategy in keeping a groove from dying.
The Latin One A
This is more like it! They might not be big fans of writing too many chords, but this bouncy, merry thing might just inspire you to get up from your seat and wiggle your hips like a hippie. Yes, the groove is good. They keep the rubbery guitar, but they keep it in its proper place (in the background) thus providing a texture, and thus there's nothing that keeps us from concentrating on the main groove. Which is the typical sort of 10,000 Maniacs groove. Bouncy keyboards. Dependable and clean drums. Danceable bass. Merchant singing. This time, she sounds a little less like she's making up the melody on the spot, which I suppose makes this one of their best melodies. There's a hint of Latin rhythm in the percussion. But only a hint. Not nearly as much as the title would have you believe. In short, this is a good 'un!
Katrina's Fair A
This is a really cool groove. And really cool grooves are the lifeblood of 10,000 Maniacs songs, after all. It doesn't quite have the cool texture of the previous song, but the chord progression seems richer. (It's only two chords for the verses and two other chords for the chorus... But they're good enough chords to carry on a three-minute song!) Merchant's breezy vocals are, as always, free-spirited and quite catchy, too, I might add.
Poor De Chirico B
It starts out like a stereotypical 10,000 Maniacs song—bouncy, fun, free-flowing, great for digestion—but then it very strangely shifts into a ska rhythm. I would normally applaud such stylistic diversity from these guys, but … holy crap, the thing just starts clunking when it hits that ska rhythm. And anyway, their usual grooving bit isn't terribly interesting, anyway.
Grey Victory A-
Holy crap, this is a heavy metal power ballad!!!!! ...OK, you caught me. This is another one of their groove-happy ditties. This one doesn't have any cool embellishments like a wobbly guitar or interesting chords to set it apart from the others songs. Their steel guitars wander up and down the scale throughout the song, trying to create an involved texture, but they probably end up harming it as much as they hurt it. I've got to give Merchant's confident lead vocals credit for keeping the song together, and, more than that, quite enjoyable. The drum rhythm is very clean and with hardly any fills. So that keeps it going, too.
National Education Week C
It seems that they were thinking about becoming a ska band, except they didn't seem to have a very good idea about how ska works. It's amazing, because ska music is so tight and fast paced—so you think these guys would be pretty good at it, right? Apparently not! They play this groove so slowly and loosely that it's uncomfortable to listen to. They seem so unsure of themselves, even the drummer who lumbers around with those cliché, echoey ska fills. Holy guacamole. I guess this is why this band pretty much found a style and stuck to it.
Death of a Manolete B-
Without a doubt, this is one of their groove-happy songs, but not all that compelling to me. I'm a bit surprised to say that, since this is by far the most menacing groove so far in the album, which ought to be awesome, but... man, I just could care less about it. The groove doesn't strike me as interesting, and the lead guitars are making faint, fuzzy siren noises over the whole thing. Sometimes fuzzy siren noises lend the song an appealing ambiance, but I can't say it does this particular one any favors. This melody isn't interesting to me... sounds like she's making it up on the spot.
Not too bad this time. The groove is light and poppy (and uses three chords instead of the usual two)! Merchant's free-flowing vocals have that cute, free-flowing quality about it that everyone likes her for. Though what she's singing isn't terribly catchy, and the three chords they're using in the groove are rather standard.
This is more like it! It's still a groove-happy song, but the groove is slower and more leisurely paced. This is 10,000 Maniacs' version of a ballad. Come to think of it, it sounds a little bit like it could be a lesser song from Parallel Lines. The only weird thing they do is that watery guitar that wafts up and down the scale. ...What the heck are they thinking with these guitars? That thing is a freaking distraction. The melody has some good hooks in it, but it's nothing that I'll remember after I'm finished with this review.
Anthem For Doomed Youth C
WHAT IS WITH THIS SKA STUFF? I'll never agree with the All Music Guide's assessment of these early 10,000 Maniacs songs. Unless they were judging them simply on the merits of these horrid ska songs. Some dude sings the lead vocals, too, which means that we're deprived of one of the nicest things this group had to offer. I might not have cared if his vocals were any good, but he's having trouble hitting the notes. As a composition, this has much better flow and melody than “National Education Week,” but the sloppy presentation completely ruined it.
This ascent into tropical music (while still keeping their usual groove-happy thing going) could have been another huge and potentially embarrassing mistake, but this isn't too bad! The groove is alright even though its cliché, and Merchan's melody isn't terribly interesting. But the fast pace and breeziness of it keeps it fun. Again, I can't be sure what the lead guitarist thinks he's doing, cluttering around there with a wobbly steel guitar.
Groove Dub B+
Man, I wasn't too happy about their fade-outs, but this groove actually fades-in. It's one of their quirkier grooves, though, and I suppose they get away with it alright. It's rather simple one with funk guitars, but it's catchy. Merchant's melody isn't that hooky... this is another one of those instances where she sounds like she's just making it up. The guitars get more disheveled by the end, which is a much more preferred strategy than them just sounding disheveled the whole way through!
Pit Viper A-
Without a doubt one of the album's most solid groove-happy tunes. It has a nice bass groove that may or may not inspire you to get out of your seat and do one of those hippie dances you see Merchant doing on stage all the time. That tight funk groove is almost certainly inspired by Talking Heads, but there's no crime in that, surely! The melody doesn't do a whole lot for me, but Merchant's stylized singing manages to make up for some of that, especially the moments where she knows to just let things go and yell “Pit Viper!” Again, there are moments in here where they strip away the lead guitars but keep the bass groove. I've never understood this strategy. Why not write a middle-eight section instead?
My Mother the War B+
Not too bad! The happy groove gets the feet moving, although perhaps it could have stood to be more infectious. The lead guitar, again, is nuts although I prefer its screechy, outer space tones to the incessant slop-scaling stuff that it did on so many of the other songs. It's still Merchant keeping the thing from falling apart. How can anyone dislike her free-spirited ways? She manages a few hooks here and there, and that's just fine.
The Wishing Chair (1985)
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Can't Ignore the Train A
I pretty much consider this the perfect example of what a quintessential 10,000 Maniacs song sounds like. It has a simple and perfectly danceable drum rhythm, the guitars are jangly and well-textured, and Natalie Merchant sings a carefree vocal melody. For some reason, I can't shake the feeling that many of these melodies, including this one, sound rather made-up-on-the spot. Maybe they came up with the groove first and tried to improvise the vocal melody the best they could? At any rate, it works. If you're feeling depressed, this is a fresh of breath air that you could use. It's like drinking a sip of mineral water after spending your entire life drinking out of the toilet.
Scorpio Rising A-
Once again, this is a 10,000 Maniacs song, but the guitars are more distorted than usual, which I suppose is a reason that I wouldn't describe this as typical for the group. Of course, everything else about this song is their unmistakeable signature... the jangly guitars, danceable beat, and the carefree vocal performance. The distorted guitars are messing with my brain!! Aghhh!!! ...Hey, wait a second. I'm a Scorpio, and I got out of bed this morning. Could this song be about me?
Just as the Tide Was Flowing A-
This upbeat 10,000 Maniacs song is played at a slightly lower speed, but it still has that typical 10,000 Maniacs feel. It sounds like Merchant is trying to sing a medieval folk song, except of course she gives it that good-times-feelin' sound with her carmelly chops. I actually would have liked to see the jangly guitars a little bit louder than the organ. Not that I don't like the organ, but the jangle is what gives it texture.
There really is something to be said for Merchant's singing. I'm not sure if I would have liked this song if it wasn't for that alluring way she handles that potent hook when she sings “Some think it is haunting / to be drawn to the cemetery ground.” The entire reason for the A-rating for this song rests on that hook. Also I must give some deserved props to the band who create another beautiful jingly/jangly texture. Once again, this is an incredibly pleasant little tune.
Back O' the Moon A
Yes, if you want to compare 10,000 Maniacs to Pink Floyd, all you need to know is that 10,000 Maniacs would prefer to refer to the dark side of the moon as “Back O' the Moon.” We all probably knew that after the slow balladry of the previous song, it wouldn't take them very long to get back to their carefree, danceable ways. It's not fundamentally different than “Can't Ignore the Train” apart from a slightly changed melody, which still seems somewhat improvised to me, as well as a brief moment in the middle when the drums stop playing. But you know what? With this band, I don't care if they keep repeating themselves. I mean, why shouldn't they mine this sound?
Maddox Table A-
Once again, it's upbeat and carefree. Why doesn't it get a solid A-rating has to do with the fact that it doesn't quite give me that liberating feeling that the other songs did... The melody doesn't have many of those alluring hooks. Of course, Merchant's vocals sound as good as they ever did. The jangly guitar textures are great, but they lost their novelty quality since they're here for all these songs. So, it's fun to listen to but lacking inspiration.
The Colonial Wing A
Now this is something different! If they wrote these songs in the order that they appear in the track listing, I would guess that that they knew they needed to change things up a bit after that relatively stale previous song. And why not do that by creating a song that is completely uncharacteristic of them? They write a tight and foreboding riff, and texture it up with some very dark synthesizer and guitar sounds in the background. Merchant doesn't sound so much “carefree” anymore but quite forceful... sounding I suppose a little more like Janis Joplin. Quite good! I'm glad they never adopted this as their usual sound, but it's good for a change-of-pace. (According to Wikipedia, this wasn't even on the original vinyl pressing of the album... So, they knew they needed to change-it-up when they programmed the CD release.)
Grey Victory A-
Yup it's back to business as usual, but as I mentioned in the previous track review, I'm more or less grateful for that. This is a rerecorded version of the same song from their earlier album, and it's definitely improved. The guitars are more cleaner, and Merchant's singing with way more confidence. But whereas it was one of the highlights on the previous album, it's not here. Merchant's vocal hooks don't seem to be quite as powerful as they could be. I suppose these sloppy guitars aren't necessarily a bad thing; there's something to be said for a slightly less refined jangle. I'm also amused by that keyboardist playing some silly scales during the obligatory “instrumental interlude” portion of the song.
Among the Americans B+
Seems a bit weak to me although if you're listening to this album on a car trip or something and spacing out with it to the scenery you might not notice. It's got that jangle guitar feeling, and more of Merchant's carefree vocals. She does hit a few endearing hooks in here, which I suppose is enough for most listeners. But that good-time jangly groove is interrupted by a bouts of washy guitar, which doesn't do much for me. I suppose at least it's different.
Everyone a Puzzle Lover A-
Still that typical 10,000 Maniacs sound with the main difference being that the guitars are way higher pitched than usual, and I hear an accordion playing long notes in the background. It doesn't ring like a classic, just because there aren't any huge hooks in the melody. (And the only thing approaching a huge hook is very, very similar to that hook I already pointed out in “Lilydale.” But of course, Merchant's fluid-like lead vocals are as strong as ever, and that's the main appeal of the song. As long as she and the guitar textures are intact, there's nothing really to dislike about this.
Cotton Alley B+
Nice textures, but I'm just a mite bored with this. Let's talk about the textures. It's very pretty. I hear a piano jangling around in the background and a lead guitarist noodling around tastefully. (Thank goodness he saw the error of his ways since the debut, where he just seemed to be doing nothing but cluttering things...) Merchant sings a typical melody, and that's good enough for many people, but she doesn't stumble upon any particularly big hooks.
I thought I told them to lay off these tropical things! This is also a rerecorded version of a song that had appeared on their debut, and it's a large improvement in the production and singing department. As I said about the original, it's nothing but a lot of breezy fun. The melody doesn't capture me, but those carefree vocals make it an experience. Play it on your next big vacation to Hawaii.
My Mother the War A-
Your mom must've been pretty intense, then... Yessiree, this is yet another rerecorded song from their debut. It was one of the better songs on there, but here it's one of the crowd. (There you go for a statement evidence of a band improving their craft!) When I was listening to this album in preparation for this review, it occurred to me how much this sounds like Blondie. When Merchant loses some of that liquid in her chops and concentrates on singing higher-pitched notes, she ends up sounding quite similar to Deborah Harry. Anyway, I like the determined drumbeat as well as the dark guitar and synthesizer sounds in the background. It's darker than the original version, which is probably better considering it's called “My Mother the War.” The groove is quite catchy, too.
Tension Makes a Tangle A-
Ah yes, every time 10,000 Maniacs deliver a darker song, you can bet there's a happy song right around the corner. If you want some good dancing-around-in-a-light-breeze-by-the-ocean music, then this might prove to be suitable. The groove is fun and upbeat. Merchant's vocal hooks are a little stronger here than usual, which should have been enough to warrant a full A-rating. But I'm not sure what the keyboardist was doing scaling around like that so loudly... Get that stuff in the background, Mr. Mixer!
Arbor Day B+
That was always a good day in my youth. We'd get a tree seedling from school to plant in our yards, but then it would just die as soon as winter rolled around again. ...Good times. This is an usual song for 10,000 Maniacs, because it's a waltz. It's not too bad. They got the old 3/4 waltz rhythm going nicely with their guitars and drums. An accordion is playing some sweet notes in the background. Of course Merchant's lead singing is as solid and confident as ever. ...But I'm just not that excited about it. The melody nor the groove is particularly memorable. It's respectable and perfectly listenable. It's probably even likable. But... eh.
In My Tribe (1987)
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What's the Matter Here? A
Well hello there, jangles! This song is produced so crystal clearly that it glistens, and Merchant's happy/velvety lead singing makes it even more happy go lucky. I used to think this song was pretty bland and boring, but it's grown on me somehow. Maybe I thought the production was too stale? ...Er, I guess it is if you want to compare it to the Rolling Stones or something, but there's nothing terribly wrong with a rock band that takes a shower in the morning. (Have you seen the sort of clothes Merchant used to wear singing in concerts? It was like she was dressing up for Sunday school or something.) Merchant manages to run across a few interesting hooks even though I still think it sounds like she's making up the melody as she goes along. Anyway, nice song! It's happy and fun.
Hey Jack Kerouac A+
This is probably my favorite 10,000 Maniacs song, so I'll give it an A+. I think it's also probably a good indicator of whether or not you're really cut-out for 10,000 Maniacs fandom. (If you're repulsed by it on first listen, then off with thee and flee over the hills...) As far as the melody goes, this is by far their most memorable. I've been getting this song stuck in my head off and on for a few months. I remember even thinking about it as I was off to see her concert last August. For once, I get the impression that Merchant isn't just making it up on the spot! The production sounds exactly the same as “What's the Matter Here?” Very crystal clear, very jangly. It wore deodorant... unlike the real Jack Kerouac, probably.
Like the Weather A-
After “Hey Jack Kerouac” goes away, is there much point in continuing? ...Er, I guess so. This is a good song, too! A great song? I don't think so. It's characterized by a crystal clear and somewhat complicated drum rhythm while an acoustic guitar strums along, and I can barely hear an electric organ in the background. It's not quite as jangly as the other songs, though. I guess “some songs are more jangly than others” is about as diverse as this album gets! Merchant sings another likable melody in her likable singing voice. No changes there.
Cherry Tree A-
Some songs are more jangly than others? This song is more jangly than others! Listen to those jangly guitars!! They're just jangling all over the place!!! How many guitars is that? Must be three of them, not including the bass. (That poor bassist must be bored just playing those boring-as-hell bass lines...) But anyway, this song is nothing if it isn't likable. If you like jangly music, then this is likable. The melody is well delivered, but the hooks aren't solid. In other words, this is a typical sort of 10,000 Maniacs song.
The Painted Desert B+
Also extremely jangly! But the pace is mid-tempo. That gives us another facet to this album's diversity: some songs are less mid-tempo than others. I don't seem to like this song so terribly much, and that's probably because their lack of melodic prowess becomes more apparent when they're not giving us a happy-go-lucky beat we can dance to. Albeit one of the bridges is interesting, and I start to think it's about to lead to a great and soaring chorus. Don't you think it would be great to hear Merchant sing a soaring chorus? I do!!
Don't Talk A
Ha hah! I'm not talking! I'm typing! Nice try, guys!! ...Actually, this is one of the more memorable tunes on here. The atmosphere starting out is rather thick and dark, which is a bit of a change of pace. But of course, Natalie Merchant's bright-and-glistening, caramel voice comes in and lets us know that everything is alright. The pace is just right this time—toe tapping. You probably can't dance to it, unless you were going to do some sort of artful interpretation. ...I'd probably rather not watch... But anyway, it's a good, whistlable tune, and I especially like that dark and watery guitar they use in the background.
Gun Shy B
According to Wikipedia, the world's vegetable garden of useful information, Track #7 of this album used to be a Cat Stevens cover. However, they had it removed after Cat Stevens said Salman Rushdie should be put to death. (But can you really blame him? I never met a member of the feline species that wasn't interested in putting Salman to death.) ((Your reaction to my hilarious joke: Booooo!)) ...Before I rudely interrupted myself... This is a nice song. But all songs on this album are nice. It's upbeat, jangly, and Merchant sounds just as carefree as people look on herpes medication commercials. (Is it just me, or do those commercials make it look like herpes are a good thing? ...It's all to do with the herpes propaganda mill, no doubt. Probably the disease itself making those commercials, clever little buggers.) The melody is OK, but not memorable. The instrumentation is standard. ...I've run out of off-topic things to talk about, so I'll just move onto the next song.
My Sister Rose B
There's a smattering of a tropical vibe to this one although not quite as face-deep into it that they've gotten in earlier albums. It's very cutesy and sort of fun. Very polished, and the instrumentation sounds a little bit like a keyboard demo. If I was at an upper-class beach party drinking margaritas and wearing white pants, I think I might be dancing to this. ...But unfortunately, I'm sitting in my PJs in my apartment somewhere in the Inland Empire, typing on this computer, and freezing my ass off. (Should I turn on the heat? ...I guess I just like to suffer.)
A Campfire Song B+
It's not “Kumbaya,” thank goodness. …As a matter of fact, this just sounds like the stereotypical 10,000 Maniacs song. Upbeat drums, jangle guitars, happy-go-lucky lead singing... She duets a bit with a guy in the middle, but that's the extent of this song's change-of-pace. Whenever I used to sing songs by the campfire, there was never someone nearby with a jangle guitar. And if someone tried to duet with me like that, he'd get punched in the face.
City of Angels B
That was pretty much the worst movie ever made. (Except for Boondock Saints.) It's also apparently a nickname for Los Angeles, which is pretty much the worst city ever made. (Except for St. Louis.) ...But this song is alright. It's a little bit boring, though. The pace is mid-tempo, and Merchant is singing in a more soaring, diva-esque way. I can picture this song playing with fireworks. The only problem I have is just that the melody doesn't interest me at all. Nothing about it ever really hooks me.
Verdi Cries B-
And I cry, too, for this is a verrrrrrry boring piano ballad. Given that I'm one who usually likes sensitive piano ballads (as opposed to cheese-metal power ballads), this B- is pretty much a smack in the face. ...What is it about 10,000 Maniacs that they're so inconsistent at writing melodies that knock me off my feet? (I guess that goes to show why I sort of consider the catchy melody of “Hey Jack Kerouac” to be mostly accidental.) Nonetheless, it's a pretty song, and I don't remember ever hearing Merchant sound so pretty singing. The string quartet playing along with the piano is pretty, too. Bring this with you next time you go to a flower show with your mom (as long as she doesn't care that you prefer putting on headphones instead of talking to her).
Blind Man's Zoo (1989)
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Eat For Two A
It almost goes without saying that the first 10,000 Maniacs song on this 10,000 Maniacs album is going to have that 10,000 signature style of groove-happiness, and groove-happy hippie Natalie Merchant sings it in such a groove-happy manner that it sounds like she's dancing in the wind, all slow-motion- and groove-happy-like. (...Hey, I never pretend that these track reviews are well-written.) I actually quite like the melody for this, and maybe I'm willing to concede that perhaps it doesn't sound quite as made-up-on-the-spot as many of their other songs seem to me. The band plays a tight and polished groove. Nice, steady danceable drums, upbeat bubbly guitar, and even a little bit o' ivory tickling.
Please Forgive Us A-
OK. I forgive you. (???) This song might be a bit more slowly paced than the previous song, but it's still upbeat, bubbly, and happy. Look, I'm not even going to let the lyrics convince me that this song is anything less than happy. (“Mercy, mercy,” why didn't we hear it? / “Mercy, mercy,” why did we read it buried on the last page of our morning papers? / The plan was drafted, drafted in secret / Gunboats met the red tide, driven to the rum trade for the army that they created / But the bullets were bought by us, it was dollars that paid them) They're depressing as hell, and apparently taken from some sort of historical event. However, I'm not paying attention to the lyrics, because the music seems UPBEAT and HAPPY. I'm not going let some terrible historical event take that away. I'm listening to those bright lead guitars, bouncy bass, and Merchant's vocals which continue to sound like they belong on an advertisement for anti-depressants.
The Big Parade B+
Now here comes the big problem with this band... When they don't strike me as being groove-happy, they tend to be less interesting to me. I suppose part of the reason is that in these slow songs, the moods actually start to match the lyrical matter! ...But still, doesn't Merchant sound like she's having the time of her life singing this in those fluid-like intonations? I'd say so. Her melody sounds pretty good, but the instrumentation is sort of boring. Seems quite sterile as a whole. The drums plod along at a mid-tempo pace only putting in the minimal fills at the appropriate places. The jangle guitar is similarly standard. There's a plain electric organ in the background. ...A nice chord change in the chorus. Technically, this is an excellent song! I'm just not feelin' it.
Trouble Me A-
Yes, I'm not paying attention to the lyrics anymore. I'm just going to tap my toes and pretend that Natalie Merchant is singing happy things with her luvurly caramel-like vocals. Certainly, I think, the melodies seem to be better here than they were in their previous albums as a whole. I get these caught in my head a little bit nicer. The band does come across as very polished, and they don't take many chances. It's the usual drum beat, a guitar stabbing his guitar a few times, and a pianist sitting around in the background playing chords and arpeggios. There's a bassist playing whole notes. (Why whole notes?) Still, nice song.
You Happy Puppet A
This is easily the most memorable song of the album. Without a doubt, I would describe this song as groove-happy. When I listen to this, all I can really do is picture people dancing around in a meadow in slow motion. The guitars are upbeat and jangly, and the drummer plays just the right toe-tapping rhythm. Most importantly, Merchant finds a very pretty melody to sing, which she delivers perfectly.
I know I should probably like this song more than I do, since this is uncharacteristically loud and boisterous for them. There's a heavier, distorted twinge to the guitars and the drumming is very loud and quite thunderous. I've been complaining that so many of these songs seem so disciplined, and here's one that throws a little bit of caution to the wind, and I'm not a huge fan of it. Unfortunately, I suppose, the loudness of these instruments don't allow them to play very engrossing textures and they also drown out all the other instruments. Furthermore, the melody doesn't interest me much either. So. Hm.
Poison in the Well B+
If I listened to this song without knowing the song title, I would never have guessed that it would've been called “Poison in the Well.” Who writes upbeat and happily paced songs with lyrics like these? (“O, they tell us there's poison in the well / That someone's been a bit untidy and there's been a small spill / All that it amounts to is a tear in a salted sea / Someone's been a bit untidy, they'll have it cleaned up in a week / But the week is over and now it's grown into years since I was told that I should be calm, there's nothing to fear here / But I drank that water for years, my wife my children”) …You drank your wife and your children? Man, they must've been annoying or something. ...Anyway, this is an alright song, but I don't find the groove nearly as striking as many of these other songs. ...What else should I say?
Dust Bowl A-
Well, this song is actually a ballad, which means that there is NO happy groove to trick me into thinking that these guys are actually happy about something. Merchant delivers a very nice soulful performance over that arpeggiating acoustic guitar, and her melody is also nicely written. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is a decent song. It sounds a little more like Merchant's solo work, but not quite as boring.
The Lion's Share A-
Should I mention that these guys weren't much for diversity? All the fast “groove-happy” songs have a tendency to sound alike from one another, and that can become somewhat tiring on me. On the other hand, I can't claim that this melody isn't once again freshly delivered from Merchant who—unlike in previous albums—it seemed rather well planned. So, if I didn't already hear songs like this done slightly better in this album, I would be celebrating right now!
Hateful Hate B+
Well, here's a pleasant shock. The song called “Hateful Hate” doesn't sound happy at all. Rather, it's quite dramatic. It starts with an electronic church organ playing a few chords, which gives way to some dramatic drumming, dark guitars, and a nearly intense vocal performance from Merchant. In the chorus, some crunchy violins pipe up to heighten the drama. The atmosphere is surprisingly dark and dramatic. Not bubbly at all! That doesn't mean I'm in love with the melody nor the instrumentation particularly... They're alright but somewhat forgettable for me.
I hate to be a total jerk, but this is probably what 10,000 Maniacs should always sound like if they're always going to write such depressing lyrics. (“Boys at the Jubilee / Slowly sink into brown-bag whiskey drinking / And reeling on their feet / Girls at the Jubilee / In low-cut dresses yield to the caresses and the man-handling / Blank hands on white shoulders / White hands on black shoulders / Dancing, and you know what's more”) The music is very low-key and slow with no bubbly guitars or drums in sight. Rather, it's just Merchant singing with a rather beautiful string quartet that never gets samey or complacent, and also a quietly arpeggiating acoustic guitar. There's some harpsichord playing as well in certain spots. How classy! ...And no, that's not the only reason I like this song. The melody is really good. Yay.
Our Time in Eden (1992)
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Noah's Dove A
To be perfectly honest, I'm a little shocked to hear this. In their last album or two, their ultra polished instrumentation always seemed to have a somewhat stiff feeling to them. This song, on the other hand, the instrumentals are still polished, but they're far looser and relaxed. Instead of sounding bright and upbeat, they're more mellow, which fits with their lyrical style well. And I like it! The melody, as a whole, is nice to listen to, and it's delivered smoothly with Merchant's characteristically caramel vocals who puts a melancholic twinge to it.
These Are Days A+
This, along with “Hey Jack Kerouac,” are the two songs in 10,000 Maniacs' discography that stick out at me the most for their melody. (I suppose one reason I've been hesitant about embracing these guys is that I like melodies that are infectious, which these guys aren't terribly known to doing.) This melody, on the other hand, is one smooth flow of hooks after another. The instrumentation continues to be well-done. It's upbeat and bright, but they're also thick and atmospheric without sounding terribly stiff. The bright atmosphere also fits the tone of the lyrics, for once.
The texture is nice. More laid back, jangly guitars... maybe they get a bit too jumbled for my taste, but they nonetheless create a gentle, pastoral texture. Other than the general pleasant feeling of the atmosphere, there's not much here that hooks me into it. Mechant's melody is fine, and she does an excellent job singing it, but I don't get terribly excited about this!
Few and Far Between A-
My, those horns! I would have thought they were vying to be the next Earth, Wind & Fire after listening to this! I mean... this isn't disco or anything, but that's quite an involved horn section! If it weren't for the horn section, this would be a sort of boringly typical 10,000 Maniacs song... bright bubbly guitars, and a happy-go-lucky melody... Yup, you know the drill. The melody is OK, but nothing hugely memorable. The guitars are polished and nicely done, and they lend the song a little bit of atmosphere, which is surely appreciated. ...My only complaint is the fade-out. It seems to come too soon, and if you're gonna have a horn section, you need a punchy finale!
Stockton Gala Days B+
This is also like a more typical 10,000 Maniacs song, except the atmosphere comes off as foggy, especially at the beginning. It's sort of cool at first, but then it starts to lose its momentum about a minute into it. The melody itself as well as Merchant's lead singing is bright and bubbly, sounding like she had just gotten out of the hospital after being bedridden with broken bones for six months. It makes a decent listen, surely, but it's nothing I come away from this album whistling underneath my breath.
Gold Rush Brides A-
Man! It's really hard for me to put my finger on these guys sometimes! As Merchant sings this meandering melody with her liquidy vocals, she run across a few hooks that really strike me as something quite special. But those hooks seem to just pop out of nowhere, and they leave just as mysteriously as they come. Is it really any wonder I always get the impression that they make up their melodies on the spot? Anyway, the instrumentation is very good here—I especially like that they added a faint but homely sound of an accordion and a very pretty slide guitar.
Holy mackerel! This isn't something I'd find “typical” of these guys at all. It starts out as a morose piano ballad, but it intermittently picks up into an upbeat-jangle-fest. The only problem I have with it is the piano ballad part is extremely slow and boring in comparison, and I don't think the transition between the two sections was handled brilliantly. (It's pretty much just a sudden transition.) Nonetheless, the upbeat parts are exciting, and I like the jangle and string-crunching texture they come up with.
How You've Grown B+
This piano and violin ballad is very bittersweet and of course it's a pleasure to hear it with Merchant's vocals, which seem custom-made for a song like this. But I've listened to this song a number of times, and I have more of a tendency to space out in front of it than really take it in. It certainly helps the flow of the song with the inclusion of a rhythm section one-third of the way into it. ...It's a nice song!
Candy Everybody Wants A
Yay, they brought back the horn section! Without them, this would have been an A-. That's the power of a cool horn section, ladies and gentlemen; they make your song one notch better! Other than that, this is what I'd call a “typical” 10,000 Maniacs song in which Merchant sings a not-too-hooky melody with her fluid-like vocals. The high-pitched, jangly guitars help create a cute texture, and of course the rhythm section is upbeat as hell. Oh yes, it's oh-so-typical... except it has a horn section!
Another fitfully excellent 10,000 Maniacs song that's not exactly inspiring mountains of words out of me! (Maybe I'm hesitant about writing these 10,000 Maniacs reviews, because I'm having trouble coming up with things to say.) The melody is OK, but nothing too extraordinary. They do create a nice jangly texture and a rather thick atmosphere. Everything that's to be expected!
Circle Dreams A-
Well as long as you don't have those square dreams about nerdy things like doing your taxes... (I bet there are people in the world who look forward to doing their taxes every year... there's got to be...) This song is at least different than the ones that precede it, and you know what? It's a pretty song anyway! The guitars and rhythm section are far more subdued, and Merchant sings a sweet melody in a gentle voice. She overdubs herself a few times in such a way that it has a nursery rhyme quality.
If You Intend A-
Back to normal! Oh well, that's what the people like, don't they? It's a tight jangle groove with Merchant singing with her molten caramel voice. ...Duh. The guitars are bright and bubbly! ...Yay! ...Maybe I'm being mildly sarcastic, but seriously: Who does songs like this better than 10,000 Maniacs, let me ask you?
I'm Not The Man B+
Nope, I don't think Natalie Merchant is *The Man* with her hippie lifestyle and everything... Well, this is the last song of the album, and it's somewhat different. There's a sort of creaky, low-pitched cello note that wanders throughout all those jangly guitars. It's a different texture I wasn't expecting from these guys! Other than that, the melody is OK, but nothing extremely distinctive. The jangly guitars are nice 'n' thick, which is why they're fun to listen to. As a whole, good song. Goodie good good good. (There you go... I think that means my day as an amateur music reviewer on the Internet is over...)
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These Are Days A
It starts with a little introduction and applause... Not terribly exciting except the announcer is on a first-name basis with Natalie Merchant, apparently... The crowd seems to be somewhat sizable although not quite a stadium. (Wait, have these guys ever filled up a stadium?) ...This is called MTV unplugged, but right away I hear an electric bass and an electric organ... So maybe they should have retitled this album MTV Unplugged (Whenever It Was Convenient). As a matter of fact, they perform this song close to how it was on the studio cut. I don't necessarily blame them for that, though. Merchant sounds great, though. The recording quality is splendid, capturing her vocals in a crystal clear manner.
Eat For Two A
...Well this is certainly different than the original, which was basically an upbeat dance number. Here, here they turned it into a somber ballad. The new format I don't think improved it terribly apart from the fact that it fits those depressing lyrics a little better now. ...But I thought bands liked playing their dance songs live so that the audience could have something to dance to! Here, all they could possibly do is a slow interpretive dance. …The actual instrumentation is a point of interest, though. It seems rather exotic. I'm not sure what that instrument is that's playing the song's memorable riff, but … it sounds like a cross between an accordion and a tuba. (Have I ever pretended to be an instrument expert?) There are some bongos plodding along with the song, and the lead guitar playing some Middle Eastern scales. ...It's kinda cool.
Candy Everybody Wants A
What about diabetic people, you thoughtless wench? ...Oh here's another song from Our Time in Eden that sounds exactly the same as it did in the studio. ...Except where's the horn section? Horns don't require plugs, so that's no excuse. ...Oh well, it's a good song with or without the horns. Especially since they really get their groove on with this song, which is among their most happy and upbeat of their repertoire. Merchant's caramel vocals come in very strongly in front of the beautifully textured instrumentals.
I'm Not the Man B
The next time I watch School of Rock I'll keep it in mind that Natalie Merchant is not THE MAN. (That's a movie that was pretty big when it came out, but it seemed to fall out of public favor... Why?!) This is a nice song for sure. It was nice in the studio although it got a bit boring for me. Since they're playing it very closely to how the original was played, it suffers the same problem. There's of course the rawness aspect of this “unplugged” live album, which could have livened things up. But … No, it just doesn't.
Don't Talk A+
Well, here's one of my favorite songs from In My Tribe, and WOW! They actually improved it! It was more or less a dance song in its original incarnation, but here it's more like a rollicking power ballad. The band is really in top form, letting their acoustic guitars, pianos, drums generate a ton of momentum as it slowly reaches its soaring choruses. Actually, it comes off as a more appropriate expression of its lyrics, which Merchant delivers in a lovely fashion. (“Don't talk, I can guess it / Don't talk, well now you're restless / And you need somewhere to put the blame for how you feel inside / You'll look for a close and easy mark, and you'll see me as fair game.”)
Hey Jack Kerouac A
Always my favorite 10,000 Maniacs song, although I'm not giving it the coveted A+ mostly because I still like the original better! (Oh how picky I am!) They don't do anything to change its pace or its mood other than giving it a cloudier atmosphere, which I'm not sure particularly suits it. (The lead guitarist in particular sounds like he's getting a bit jumbled up in spots.) Nonetheless, no live show would've been complete without this song. It's catchy.
What's the Matter Here? A
Apparently this is the song that's more well-loved by fans than “Hey Jack Kerouac,” which I don't understand. Does it have as catchy of a melody? ...I DON'T THINK SO! ...But it's still pretty catchy, and I've always liked its groove. They do slow this down just a mite from the original, and gave it cloudier instrumentation. In this case, their very intricate texture they create is easy for me to sink myself into and—unlike the previous song—more or less seems to fit its mood. The lead guitarist takes a solo midway through, which is kind of cool. Merchant comes across as more contemplative than she did in the original song, which … once again, fits those somber lyrics much better.
Gold Rush Brides B+
Merchant decides to introduce this song with a narrative about … babies. Why? I have no idea. (When I went to her concert in 2009, she introduced every single song like this. ...No complaints, since it was educational.) ...Well, this was one of the slower songs from Our Time in Eden and it's a slow song on this live album. I like much of what the band does, creating a nicely intricate texture and Merchant's vocals are as solid as ever, but … Eh, it's slow! There's a little bit of build-up, but for some reason it doesn't take me along. Makes a nice listen, at least.
Like the Weather A-
This was their song from In My Tribe that confounded me the most. On the surface, it's the cheeriest song since The Monkee's “Theme From The Monkees,” but if you were to only read the lyrics, it's a wrist-slitting thing. ...Well, they pretty much perform it the exact same way they did in the studio. They don't bother trying to slow it down or anything. ...Though that's probably a good thing, because I can't imagine what this would have sounded like as a ballad. But anyway, the melody is nice and maybe you'll tap your foot to it? I like hearing that chuggy groove the rhythm guitarist comes up with … you'll have to pay attention in the background to hear it!
Trouble Me B
They mellowed the groove considerably from the original in Blind Man's Zoo, and I'm not sure it really suited it. The first two minutes of this are a little bit boring; there's not much interesting to report about the instrumental textures. Just the usual drums, plain piano chords, and pointy rhythm guitar. ...There's a middle-eight section that gets really nice at least, and it has some interesting build-up.
The big question in my mind about this song is if they improved the transition between the morose piano ballad and that upbeat jangle-fest that the original launches into with virtually no transition between the two. The answer is a resounding yes, although they achieve that by making the upbeat part not as upbeat. It's just as minor sort of pick-up. Perhaps that would have made the original sound nicer? ...On the downside, that means this song is a lot slower than the original, and I could certainly see how some people might find this boring. Me, on the other hand, like basking in its somberness. Maybe I'm emo, or something, except I don't listen to terrible music!
Because the Night A-
...Otherwise known as “Becuose the Night” to people from New York City. This is a cover of a song by Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen. I'm not terribly sure why these guys are covering it, but it sounds quite nice. The way it's presented here, it sounds pretty well next to their other material. The melody is fine, and it's delivered well from Merchant, as always. I like the hoedown fiddles. I suppose my complaint about it is that it's not terribly memorable, but I suppose I'll have to take that one up with the Boss.
Stockton Gala Days A-
One of the meh-worthy but still nice songs from Our Time in Eden, for sure. They let the song build up from humble beginnings to a rather cluttered ending, which I'm not sure was the best idea for it... Although I certainly appreciate that they would actually let the song build up, because then it grows more passionate at the end. Of course Merchant's vocals are there to match.
Noah's Dove A-
The original was already quite low-key... but this is even more low-key as Natalie Merchant plays its entire riff on the sullen piano. Eventually acoustic guitars, bass, and other instruments start to layer on top of that. It's a different version of the song, which I always appreciate. However, I wouldn't call it an improved version! This version is a little bit too loose for me. And despite the build-up, they don't really to that consistently for its entire run and the song ends up stagnating. Still, it's good.
Love Among the Ruins (1997)
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Rainy Day A-
Maybe in an ideal universe, *that* singer still would have been with the group to sing the songs. I probably never came across as the biggest fan of Merchant's vocals, but it's never more evident than it is now just how much good she contributed to their songs just through her voice! Speaking of the quality of the songwriting, however, I think these guys fared just as well without her as they did with her (with the exception of the lack of those pretty ballads that Merchant was responsible for). The hooks are there although they're quite watery and it's a little bit too easy for me to space out and tune it out. The jingle-jangly instrumentation is spot-on, though, providing a pretty atmosphere... my only complaint is that it's all so polished that it comes off as slightly sterile. But haven't I been complaining about that forever? Alas, all that means is I can further confirm that these guys will never be my favorite group. As a whole, this song is sweet, breezy and nice. Not especially memorable, but wholly likeable.
Love Among the Ruins A-
Oh man, this stuff is as sweet as a summer's wind. It sounds like it belongs on a '90s adult-alternative station, and that's probably exactly what they were going for. But is that to its detriment? Ah well, if you like '90s alternative-radio, then this is quite a nice pick for you! Once again, the melody is breezy and wholly loveable, and the lighthearted instrumentation gives it a polished gleam. It still seems a bit sterile to me, but not sterile enough for me to not enjoy the tight, bright, and jangly instrumentation these guys have crafted for it. ...I mean, didn't I hear them play this song on an anti-depressant commercial once?
Even With My Eyes Closed B+
Well now I have anti-depressant commercials stuck in my mind, and now all I see when I listen to these songs is green fields, fluffy puppies, and people in loose pastel clothing throwing their arms up in the air. But I hope I'm not the only one in the world who thinks the songs on those commercials can be pretty good! (If you don't, then we can safely say this album is going to be faaaaaaaaaar out of your comfort zone.) I sound like a broken record when I describe these songs, but how can you blame me when they all seem to sound so much alike? Yessir, jing-jangly guitars, carefree singing, and everything is bright and fresh. There's some happy violin at the end for good measure.
Girl On a Train B
Now this is especially where Natalie Merchant is missed since ballads were always her strong suit, and it's also pretty damn obvious Ramsey is trying her hardest to pull off the best Merchant-isms that she could positively muster and not really coming out on top. Not only did Merchant sing these sorts of songs with a melancholic grace that not many other singers could match, but I'd imagine that she wrote most of them, too. With no second thought of the matter, the ballads on their previous two studio albums are well beyond this. But you know what? This song is still good. The melody continues to be sweet and graceful, and the instrumentation isn't quite so bright, but it's sweet and uplifting. Not the most inspirational song, though, so to those of you who are in charge of picking the soundtracks to anti-depressant commercials, I'd go with another one of these songs.
Green Children B+
That's exactly why you shouldn't raise a family next door to a nuclear power plant. That is, unless you want your children to turn green. ...Anyway, this is where this album's lack of real diversity is starting to take a toll in the track ratings. I mean, how many airy upbeat jingly songs can we take all at once? It doesn't help that this is effectively a weaker form of songs that had already appeared here, so that just means I pretty much don't even notice this song when I hear it play. But I still like the experience of sitting through it... I mean, who wouldn't? ? The melody is bright and breezy, the instrumentation is (once again) strikingly anti-depresant-esque. And I also just noticed I like the that descending chord progression. Count this as a solid A- if it appeared at the beginning of the album instead of whatever indistinctly different song that appeared there instead.
A Room For Everything B
Man... how can you say anything mean about a song like this? It's so ever-loving pleasant that it seems like saying anything even remotely negative about it would be like kicking a puppy in the gut.I mean, this is a gentle and sweet piano ballad with a pretty and flowing vocal melody, and sparkly (though a bit too squeaky clean) instrumentation. But I like this. I'm not going to be accused of kicking puppies.
More Than This A-
Holy moly, it's a Roxy Music cover! Now, I think you'd have to be somewhat psycho not to like the original. ...And given the overall pleasantness of this band, you'd have to be especially pathological not to like this rendition of it. It's probably mean of me to bring this up, but the simple fact that they're singing Roxy Music makes this the greatest melody of the album bar-none. But even on its own merits, the instrumentation is pretty gleaming. The jangly guitar sounds wonderful in its crystal clarity, and Ramsey's vocal rendition is just so sweet. ...And I'd say Ramsey sounds better singing a song like this than Merchant would. I mean, Merchant doesn't pull of sweet breeziness like this.
Big Star B+
This song, yet again, is so gosh-durned likeable that I really kind of wish I could like it more. But how am I supposed to love an album full of anti-depressant commercials? I suppose you have to give Merchant credit for wanting to turn her songs into something more than they were... given thow inappropriate it might have been to the style of music! ...I'm not sure what I'm supposed to say about this song that I didn't already say about the others. It's bright, clean, and jangly. Breathe me some fresh air!
You Won't Find Me There A-
For some reason, this song is striking me a little bit higher than some of these other ones. Though, why should I even bother questioning what songs strike me? This is jangly goodness just like all these other songs, but the melody seems to pop out at me more. Moreover, Ramsey is very good in the lead vocals. ...Oh, she's always been consistently good, but I notice it here slightly more.
All That Never Happens A-
Now here's a song that I firmly believe Ramsey sounds better than Merchant ever could. The airy whispiness of her vocals sound positively shimmering here whereas Merchant's molasses stylings would have bogged it down. It's also pretty interesting I seem to be slowly grown more fond of Ramsey's vocals. Maybe that goes to show that you just have to get used to things sometimes! (Though everything I said so far, I continue to stand by...) Ramsey is perfectly at home singing songs that want to be nothing else than sweet and pretty. And sweet and pretty this jangly piano ballad with a soaring chorus is. (It's still anti-depressant-ish, hence these songs' inability to break out of the comfortable A- range, but that's hardly news.)
Shining Light A-
Are we still in that anti-depressant commercial? I guess so! This is another very pretty song with jangly guitars and melody prettily delivered by Ramsey. It still comes off as a little too polished for my taste. (I know... I'm the same person who goes nuts over ABBA songs... But jangle-pop always seems like it benefits with a little bit of earthen grit to it.) But anyway, the guitars are jangly, the drums are upbeat, and you can't help but breathe in a hearty breath of fresh air when you listen to this.
Across the Fields A-
Well, I'm at the end of the album... And it's NICE! It has a sweet violin at the beginning and a pleasant piano. Ramsey gives us a pretty vocal performance and sings a melody that's good to sunbathe to. I'll just go ahead and say right now that 10,000 Maniacs were a far better act than Natalie Merchant was at the time. I mean, songs like this put a smile on my face, but Merchant's stuff from Tigerlily put a yawn on my face! ...Oh sure, I'm going to completely forget about this song as soon as it's through playing. I sort of wish these guys tried a little harder to make an impact on me that extends beyond my short-term memory... But this makes me so happy in the short term. Whatever am I going to do when it stops playing?
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San Andreas Fault B
If Los Angeles ever gets leveled by an earthquake, I think we all know which of the saints to blame. (Poor San Andreas. Maybe he would have thought twice about becoming Catholic if he'd known what people would eventually put his name to.) Anyway, I'm here to talk about Natalie Merchant and her Merchant-ness. ...She left 10,000 Maniacs and now she's free to refrain from jangling. ...But I'm wondering how Merchant could possibly have written a less interesting song to open this album. I mean, it's polished, it's nice, it's sung well. Unlike vintage 10,000 Maniacs material, it's not terribly upbeat nor does it have a jangle for her to sing amongst. Instead, she's created a very subdued guitar and electric piano groove. (So, it's basically the same thing, but without so much guitar.) The melody sounds OK with her liquidy vocals, but it's nothing that ever really wedges itself in my head, unfortunately.
So unfortunately, Natalie Merchant is exactly like 10,000 Maniacs except a bit more watered down. She managed to land a guitarist who knew a thing or two about licks; even as he is thrust into the background, he's all I'm paying attention to. The melody, once again, proves to be nothing special, but it flows more smoothly than a babbling brook. Although it's a somewhat uninteresting adult-contemporary tune. ...Oh man, do I even remember songs like this being popular? I'm getting flashbacks to middle school right about now.
Beloved Wife B-
Hard to really deny that Merchant is respectable, but if she's just going to write bland piano ballads, then … well, I'll sit politely for you, but I'm thinking of other things. The vocals are nice, at least... liquidy... She doesn't seem any more or less passionate than she did throughout 10,000 Maniacs songs. But I think people have already decided whether they're going to take her or leave her. ...This is sort of a nice, dustless bit for a furniture exhibit.
Well, here there's at least a consistent drum rhythm, which lets me get into the groove a little nicer. But, she's singing in such a subdued manner that it eventually starts to hypnotize me asleep. ...And then she starts to sing more loudly, I suppose, as a last-ditch attempt to inject some life into it, but by this time, I've grown somewhat cynical towards it. …....And later, she takes away the drums. ...Wait a minute, why did she leave 10,000 Maniacs to begin with? She was nice as the face of the band, but without them, she's just a face. I mean, she has a competent band, but let's face it: their talents are average.
This is a good song, so at least we have that going for us! You might just want to download this one from iTunes to get the whole experience! One reason that it's so good is that there's a nice, drum-beat and a bit of funk guitar going on throughout it. (Ha! ...Why did she leave 10,000 Maniacs, again?) The melody is pretty good. As far as impressions go, the chorus to this song is the only thing I ever particularly come away from this album remembering. The vocals continue to be quite nice, to those of us who like hearing her sing, as smooth as the smoothest clay.
I May Know the Word C
I know that there's no way on GOD'S GREEN EARTH that Natalie Merchant should come out with an eight-minute song. I mean, that's how long Genesis' “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight” is. But they deserved such a length, because it's epic. ...This song, on the other hand, as respectable as a bit of dusty furniture as it is, slowly puts me to sleeeeeeeeeeeep. As usual, Merchant comes up with a melody that doesn't sound particularly great nor memorable to me, and the band is only barely passable. In fact, this sounds like one of those adult-contemporary songs we might sing at church. ...And about as well-played as one, frankly. Though there continues to be something nice about listening to Merchant and her Merchanty vocals.
The Letter B-
This is a nice piano ballad! ...It's pretty much the same thing as a Tori Amos ballad, except there's somebody different singing! It's quite bland though at the same time is so respectable that it makes me feel as though I'm standing before the president of the United States. He might be a boring dork, but you better not yawn. Cowboy Romance B I almost don't even notice that the previous song actually ended, since they sound pretty much the same to me. The main difference is that there's a violin playing somber notes in the background, hence the slight increase in score. Again, it's a perfectly nice listen even though it's basically just one-ear-out-the-other where the melody is concerned. It's sweetly sung, though, so it has that going for it. Jealousy B Well we can be relatively glad that she's using a rhythm section for this one as opposed to the boring piano ballad boringness of the previous two tracks. Though as long as she was going to write songs that were going to sound a lot like 10,000 Maniacs anyway except without any semblance of edge (as little of that as she had), then... why did she leave the band? But I suppose this makes an altogether OK listen if. It's roughly as memorable as what I was doing exactly eight years, eight months, eight days, and eight hours ago (whatever that was).
Where I Go B-
Could you maybe go to a place that inspires you to write interesting songs? Again, this is a nice little respectable song, but unfortunately, I'm a mite bored. It still sounds like 10,000 Maniacs material watered down, since the melody is undistinguished. We do have Natalie Merchant's voice, which is something, but other than that. Meh. Middle-of-the-road respectability for consumers of White Bread.
Seven Years C+
Yay... this album is over. Once again, Merchant came up with a song that isn't *bad* but it also bores the living crap out of me. It might have been better if she chose to end this album out on more of a memorable note, but then again, I guess the only song that could possibly fit that bill on here would be “Carnival.” And then we wouldn't have gotten to hear it earlier! ...Should I describe this song? ...Yawn-inducing piano ballad with tedious pacing and uninteresting instrumentation. The singing is nice and loud—the exact same way she always sings!--but the song itself? Eh.
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Why does she have to sound like she's singing about the most important things in the world? Or maybe that's just a false perception I have of her? Well, she does seem to want to expand people's brains by putting actual information in her songs. Except it's not fun information like we get from Kiss songs, for instance, which details their near-misses with underage groupies. But anyway, if we do what we should and not care about lyrics, then this is a pretty good song. Merchant and her caramel vocals are pretty, and she's singing a nice melody that reminds me of an old ballad from the Wild West. The instrumentation starts off quiet, and it slowly builds up with an organ into something louder. Although Merchant still has that dead-serious tone in her voice. ...Ugh, isn't the constant dead-serious tones exactly what drove me crazy about Joan Baez? Oh well, that dark tone in the background I'm hearing from mildly distorted guitars, full and heavy cymbals, and dark background synthesizers are a good touch. Also, I very faintly hear some background synthesizers turning into circus music at the end. Er... Ophelia went to the circus? But even despite this, this song is quite slow and heavy handed throughout.
Life is Sweet A
Well, this song at least has a full stringed orchestra! Although I suppose if she restrained it a little bit, it wouldn't have been so obvious she had to rip off “Pachelbel's Cannon” to come up with this. Well, Paul McCartney ripped off that song to make “Let it Be,” so why should I call foul? At any rate, Merchant lets her voice SOAR over the chorus, which is always the sort of thing she's done best. Right there, when she's singing with those heavy strings and sweetly playing piano, this is fantastic!
Kind and Generous B+
This is pretty good when it starts. There's vaguely a 10,000 Maniacs feeling when some nicely arpeggiating guitars pipe up, and Merchant sings a catchy bit with some upbeat, nonsense lyrics that go “Na-na-na-na!” But unfortunately, pretty much everything else about this song falls relatively flat. She at least keeps that chorus going (with some real-word lyrics) through most of the last half of the song until a fade-out, which means that we get the “goods” most of the time. But I want the goods all the time!
Frozen Charlotte B-
Well I guess the last two songs were the great upbeat songs, which means Merchant is going to give her a free pass to bore the living daylights out of us for the remainder of this album. Oh well... I can take it! Do your worst, lady!! ...Well, this slooowwww ballad is nearly five-and-a-half-minutes long and consists of a light, drum-beat and a thoughtfully twinking guitar and electric piano while Merchant sings things I don't care about. Midway through, a quiet but washy guitar comes in (and please tell your sound engineer to stop messing with the pan knob!!!). The instrumentation is sparse, but it's quite nice as a whole. It's nice to see that she's giving these songs some textures that don't seem nearly as pedestrian as they did in Tiger Lily. I just wish this wasn't so dang SLOW.
My Skin C
Don't we have Tori Amos for these sorts of songs? Here is Natalie Merchant singing seriously about depressing things to a bare piano. Oh, about a minute and a half in, I BARELY pick up on a cello or something before fully taking over at the two-minute mark after which it still finds huge chunks of time to disappear before the end when it finally becomes a full-time employee. Well, I kind of like the ending with the cellos and pianos... I probably would have cut about two minutes from this song. The melody is just so-so this time. Not very heavy on the hooks and the enunciation on certain words to the lyrics probably tells me this song is more about them than the melody. ( “Do you remember the way / That you touched me before / All the trembling sweetness / I loved and adored? / Your face saving promises / Whispered like prayers / I don't need them / No, I don't need them.”)
Break Your Heart B+
The drums are a little bit busier and shuffly here, and I like that smooth-jazzy saxophone she has going at the end! (No, seriously, those saxophone is cute and has a nice tone to it. We've come a long way since Kenny G, my friends. I'll credit it to technology.) ...OK, it's hardly genius like a Roxy Music solo, but it does give me a second melody to listen to if I get bored with Merchant's singing melody... which in itself is actually quite nice. There's also a pretty cute adult-contemporary acoustic guitar solo at the end, and I can't forget to mention that there's a puttery bass guitar playing throughout this. I swear a bass guitar like that can save anything.
King of May A-
Well this isn't as good as The Bee Gees' “First of May,” if that's what you're thinking! (What does that say about me that I love listening to sappy Bee Gees ballads, but not so much these Natalie Merchant ones? ...Well, I guess when The Bee Gees do an orchestral swell—which is frequent—they didn't hold back! Merchant always holds back. Mustn't let anything distract us from her great poetry, after all!) But what am I complaining about? I actually like this one. It starts out like a church song with Merchant singing along with some drab but clean organ chords. But soon, a drum beat pipes up and so does eventually a string section, and by the end, she's belting it out like nobody's business. If only all her songs progressed so nicely and were reasonably lengthed! (Four minutes.)
Thick as Thieves B+
Seven minutes long? Dang it, Natalie! (I can call her by her first name, 'cos she and I go a long ways back.) But somehow, I actually like this. I'm not blown away by it, though, so I'm not going to go too crazy about it. However, it has a pretty nice tune, and I like that she let quite a distorted guitarist play some noodles throughout it, which gives it some dimension... which was something that was almost entirely lacking from her debut album! Of course it's slow moving and probably didn't need to be seven minutes long, but I do sense some drive to it and it flows well. The vocal performance is nice, as expected.
The best thing about this song is that it's only two and a half minutes long. ...And no! That wasn't a put-down! I mean, that's just about the right length for it. This is probably the most slow-moving and—I suppose—ethreal song of the lot. Except it's still very minimally orchestrated with some very quiet but echo ridden guitars as well as a non-Merchant singer sounding like she's from the Middle East.
The Living B
Well, Merchant knows how to throw a party! This is another slow-moving ballad! (I've said this enough times, but she should have stuck with the band. They knew how to even out this stuff.) It has a pretty nice melody and it's well-sung. Professionalism abounds with this. ...So thanks, for the professionalism. This makes me feel very grown up.
When They Ring Them Golden Bells A-
Whoah! That's the lead singer (Karen Pearis) from The Innocence Mission doing a duet with Natalie Merchant. ...I know I'm probably in the minority, but I like Pearis' voice a lot whereas I only like Merchant's voice a lot. (Those italics make a big difference.) When I hear her sing, it's like she's looking at something that no-one else has seen or will ever see... if that makes any sense. But anyway. This sounds like it could have been an old folk song from the Depression Era, and it's quite sweet. ...Also, if you stick around, you'll hear a string arrangement of “Ophelia.” It's quite long and slow, but that's just because it's a string arrangement of “Ophelia.”
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