Friday, 23 August 2013
117 In My Tribe - 10,000 Maniacs
Purchased : 28 December 1988
Tracks : What's The Matter Here ? / Hey Jack Kerouac / Like The Weather / Cherry Tree / The Painted Desert / Don't Talk / Peace Train / Gun Shy / My Sister Rose / A Campfire Song / City Of Angels / Verdi Cries
This was bought from W H Smith's in Rochdale though I'm not quite sure what I was doing there as it wasn't a match day.
It feels like we've come to a watershed here. After discussing my sister's final gifts we now come to an LP, one of my all-time favourites , which points towards many subsequent purchases. In a way this was my first LP of the nineties.
This was something of a speculative purchase. The band had lurked around the edges of my consciousness for a while before I saw them doing "Don't Talk " on Channel 4's Earsay
( a late night Whistle Test -type rock show that came in for vituperative abuse in Record Mirror 's TV column despite featuring many bands who got good reviews elsewhere in the magazine ) and was moderately interested. I then read , again in Record Mirror, a review of a UK gig which really sold the band to me saying something like "Natalie Merchant sings about the subjects others don't dare to even think about". And so I thought this was worth a punt.
This LP was released at the tail end of summer 1987 and was their second for a major label. The first had received a fair bit of critical acclaim but little in the way of sales. This one was recorded after the departure of one of their guitarists ( and co-writer of the first LP ) John Lombardo. He wasn't replaced and "In My Tribe " is a more collaborative effort with a cleaner sound cannily produced by Sixties survivor Peter Asher . It's also helped by less mannered singing from Merchant. Here the songs are everything; only one track has a guitar solo. The band impress through versatility rather than virtuosity. Shamefully it's never charted in the UK but broke through in the States ( number 37 ) where it's been a college rock favourite ever since.
"What's The Matter Here ?" is a co-write with guitarist Robert Buck. It's a song about child abuse from the point of view of a suspicious neighbour whose self righteousness ( a perennial accusation made against Merchant ) - " Get this through that I don't approve", "Answer me and take your time" - is balanced out by the obvious compassion for the boy and the confession of cowardice in the song's pay-off. Buck works hard to fit a wordy lyric into place opting for a circular jangly riff to accompany the vocal. Although it softened over time Merchant's keening vocal style , somewhere between kd lang and Stevie Nicks is still something of an acquired taste ( my US pen friend finds it an impenetrable barrier ) and it's well exercised here. The song was a minor hit as a single in the USA.
"Hey Jack Kerouac" is an upbeat but wistful song about the Beat writers and their legacy which has me at something of a disadvantage as I haven't read anything by them not even On The Road . Merchant has never been self-conscious about her bookishness and each writer is addressed familiarly by their first name. Allen Ginsburg apparently took exception to this and the blunt reference to his interest in young boys and actually tackled her about it receiving the disingenuous answer that he was included because his name scanned. It's very tight musically with the rhythm section giving it a real pop kick.
"Like The Weather " was their first hit in the States reaching number 68 helped by a video which introduced Merchant's idiosyncratic dancing to the wider public . It's a Merchant solo composition written from the point of view of a housewife with Seasonal Affective Disorder who can barely rouse herself from bed. The subject matter is in contrast to the upbeat African-tinged music with Jerome Augustyniak's drums the lead instrument and a killer chorus.
"Cherry Tree" is the only song I'm aware of to tackle the subject of adult illiteracy.It's an immensely warm song from Dennis Drew's organ to Merchant's heartfelt vocal really getting under the skin of the protagonist torn between the desire to access the world of knowledge and the shame of admitting her deficiency.
"The Painted Desert " ( a co-write with Augustyniak ) seems like a more personal song about a relationship failing to sustain itself by letter after one party has moved away and found a new friend. It's slower than its predecessors with sad organ chords and Merchant's vocal aches with wounded loss.
The side ends on a high with possibly their greatest song "Don't Talk " where Merchant adopts the persona of the battered wife confronting her partner's alcohol-fuelled abuse. The verses seethe with pent-up rage with Steve Gustafson's melodic bass line duelling with Augustyniak's aggressive drumming and Buck's angry guitar blasts while Merchant drills through the man's excuses with merciless insight. The urgent chorus provides a melodic sweetener without letting go of the bone and then Buck is finally let off the leash to close it out with a mournful solo. I have to admit there is a similarity to Go Your Own Way in the song's structure but as that's a personal fave too I can overlook the debt.
"Peace Train" is a cover of the Cat Stevens song and no longer appears on U.S. CDs of the album, the band pulling it in the wake of his support for the Salman Rushdie fatwa and consequent concerns about where he might direct the royalties. It's a largely faithful cover driven along by Augustyniak's percussion skills and Merchant recapturing the spirit of late 60s idealism that its author lost somewhere along the way.
"Gun Shy" follows on quite naturally with Merchant casting herself as the peacenik sister of a young man who wants to join the army. It's folk-rock at its best with Drew's warm and woozy organ chords complimenting Merchant's achingly sad vocal.
She stays in the sibling role for "My Sister Rose" the happiest song on the album as Merchant dissects an Italian-American wedding to a cha-cha rhythm although there's an undercurrent of sadness at the loss of her companion to married life.
"A Campfire Song" is a moral fable , timely in the year of Wall Street, with a simple "greed is bad" message although the natural metaphors suggest there's also an eco-theme. The ringing guitars and gorgeous folk-rock melody suggest The Byrds or maybe someone else. And lo and behold there's another voice coming in on the middle eight and one Michael Stipe Esq. makes his first appearance in our story. ( When I saw them in Manchester six months on from here Merchant picked a guy from the audience to do Stipe's bit and his singing was so bad it removed any suspicion that he was a stooge).
"City Of Angels" is the nearest this album gets to a duff track. It's a protest song about the homeless people of Los Angeles with an excess of laboured irony around the city's name. An unattractive hectoring tone also creeps into Merchant's voice as the song progresses. The languid pace and guitar work suggest a Cocteau Twins influence. It's actually OK ; it just doesn't shine in this exalted company.
That leaves the astonishing "Verdi Cries" ( a big favourite with Stipe who re-wrote it as Nightswimming a few years later ) which is effectively a Merchant solo recording , her voice and piano accompanied only by some guest string players. If anyone can listen to this beautifully played and sung litany of dearly -held childhood holiday memories with its pregnant pauses without welling up they've already died. The older you are the more you feel this extraordinary ( especially given Merchant was only 23 when she wrote it ) song.
There's nothing better than an album which exceeds all your expectations. This is definitely one of my Desert Island Discs. It blew away any last vestiges of anti-American prejudice in my record-buying for good ( as you'll see ). That none of its participants have ever done anything quite as good since doesn't really matter.