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Years Gone By: The past looks better than ever for 10,000 Maniacs.

Sans Merchant, 10,000 Maniacs return to their glory days

By Gina Arnold

10,000 MANIACS are one of the more inaptly named bands of the late 20th century. In direct opposition to the image conjured up by their name, their pastel-tinged 1985 album, The Wishing Chair, ushered neo-electric folk-rock into a turquoise- and black-striped New Wave world--and about time, too. Indeed, along with bands like R.E.M., Camper Van Beethoven and the Meat Puppets, 10,000 Maniacs helped make indie rock go mainstream by creating a less punk, more palatable sound for the masses.

It was a sound that, when it finally broke through the impenetrable wall of radio playlists, could appeal to older fans of the Allman Brothers, Joni Mitchell, Fairport Convention and the like. That's the band's story as seen in hindsight, however.

At the time, The Wishing Chair and its much more popular follow-up, In My Tribe, didn't seem like the downhill slide into banal maturity that singer Natalie Merchant's subsequent solo career has, in fact, been. Indeed, for a time in the mid-'80s, despite their gentle and contemplative ambiance, 10,000 Maniacs belonged on college radio with peers like the Pixies, Dumptruck, Love Tractor and their closest West Coast counterpart, Camper Van Beethoven. (Surely if Camper Van Beethoven had been led by a pretty girl, it too might have done as well commercially.)

The original band was the brainchild of John Lombardo, one of those record-obsessed geeks who knows every Bob Dylan lyric and lick by heart. Lombardo began the Maniacs in his hometown of Jamestown, N.Y., recruiting a 15-year-old Merchant to sing atop his '60s-inspired songs.

He was clearly instrumental in helping the band leap over the hoopla of early-'80s independent-rock mores and into the mainstream. But in true indie-rock fashion, Lombardo quit the band the instant before In My Tribe went mega-platinum. I remember reading an interview with him in which he said it was like breaking up with a girl just before she won a million bucks in the lottery.

Eight years and millions of albums later, Merchant went solo, at which point the other members of 10,000 Maniacs readmitted Lombardo to the fold. These days, the band consists of all its original members save Merchant, whose place has been taken by Mary Ramsey. Although Ramsey's musical ethos recalls Merchant's in feel, if not in timbre, her voice is far less affected--and she plays viola and violin. Thus the band's development is a bit parallel to that of the Jefferson Airplane--if the Airplane's original singer, Signe Anderson, had gone on to fame and fortune.

BE THAT AS it may, fans of 10,000 Maniacs' original sound will be pleasantly surprised by their new album, The World Pressed Flat (Bar None Records), which remains perfectly true to the sound of those earlier records. Folk-rock fans will also find something to like here, particularly the covers of songs by Mimi Farina ("In the Quiet Morning") and Sandy Denny ("Who Knows Where the Time Goes").

The originals are equally likable, if a bit more diffuse, and they certainly won't startle anyone familiar with the band. Ramsey writes lyrics that have the same impressionistic, observational sense that Merchant's did (although without the annoying piousness that makes Merchant's later work so solemn).

"When the day ends, and church bells are ringing/When the valley is shrouded in snow" (from "Smallest Step") is an exceedingly typical Maniacal lyric. So too is a remark like "Out though the foggy window just to see/the eyes of my future children looking back at me."

Also like Merchant, Ramsey is preoccupied with remembrance of things past: landscapes changing, time gone by, seasonal imagery and so forth: "Hallowed buildings scrape the sky/Voices ride the airwaves/Once a city, years gone by" ("Once a City").

Such nostalgic stuff, however, is not an inappropriate subject for a band that has such a distinctly retro feel to it. 10,000 Maniacs aren't, of course, on one of those trendy retro-bandwagons like swing or disco; nevertheless, their severe adherence to older rock idioms, instruments and narratives comes across as more old-fashioned as time goes by.

But it's strange how time warps all things, even art. When I first heard 10,000 Maniacs playing material like that on the new album, they sounded as fresh as snow. Now they sound old, staid and utterly conventional--the classic-rock dinosaurs of that secret era. They're not any better or worse; I'm just hearing them through a different aural prism. Fans of bands like Fairport Convention ought to appreciate The World Pressed Flat for its folk stylings and pristine musicianship; while lapsed fans of Jewel and Sarah McLachlan may also appreciate its less-produced, less-glamorous and much better songwriting.

10,000 Maniacs play with Peter Mulvey at 9:30pm on Saturday (June 19) at the Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $14 dr/$12 adv. (423-1336)

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From the June 16-23, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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