Tuesday, 31 December 2013
123 Blind Man's Zoo - 10,000 Maniacs
Purchased : 20 May 1989
Tracks : Eat For Two / Please Forgive Us / The Big Parade / Trouble Me / You Happy Puppet / Headstrong / Poison In The Well / Dust Bowl / The Lion's Share / Hateful Hate / Jubilee
It was an absolute no brainer that I would purchase this from one of the Manchester stores as soon as it came out. Shortly afterwards I saw them at Manchester Free Trade Hall, one of my first drives into the big city, made unnecessarily fraught by my not knowing how to use the de-mister properly. Parking up was also a bit of a problem as there was a big Barry McGuigan fight in the city on the same night. The policeman I asked for advice recognised me from Spotland. The gig was great and a few weeks later it was broadcast on ITV; so far it hasn't surfaced on youtube.
"Eat For Two" was inspired by Natalie Merchant's own anxieties when 15 over a broken condom during sex with a 22 year old "boyfriend" as revealed in an interview in The Guardian. I must confess to being pretty shocked ; at this time I was very prone to thinking along that madonna / whore axis and I had Natalie very much in the former category. Despite opening with a very spiky one-note guitar riff from Robert Buck it blossoms out into a typically warm folk-pop song with a mournful melody. Natalie's empathy with the impending teenage mum is obvious and is complemented by Drew's piano and Jevetta Steele's backing vocals. It was my favourite single of 1989 though not a hit ( a disconnect that would become all too common in the coming decade ) .
Whereas "Eat For Two" would fit easily on "In My Tribe" , "Please Forgive Us" is the first evidence of this LP's shift away from personal topics to taking more obvious political stances. The lyric is an extended apology, presumably to Nicaragua from liberal-minded America, for the Contragate scandal which is fine except that it's clumsily expressed -"the billets were bought by us, it was dollars that paid them" and barely attached to Robert Buck's music. an all-purpose jangle that doesn't go anywhere. It's simply boring and a bit of a shock that they could produce something so uninspiring.
"The Big Parade " is a bit better, a fairly literal account of a young man visiting the Vietnam memorial in Washington DC where his father's name is inscribed. It's set to an appropriately funereal dirge with rich Hammond chords from Drew and parade ground drumming from Jerome Augustyniak for which he got the co-writing credit. It's still a case of "less words , more tune" please.
"Trouble Me" was the lead single and a respectable hit in the States though not here. Essentially it carries the same message as Bridge Over Troubled Water but it's set to such a pallid light funk-pop backing and insipid tune that the line "let me send you off to sleep" acquires an unintended meaning. The video with a beaming Natalie spending quality time with her granny ( the rest of the band are conspicuously absent ) highlights the problem many have with her - that self-conscious "worthiness" that informs much of her work.
"You Happy Puppet" at least allows for some ambiguity. It could be addressed to the politically unaware consumer or someone who doesn't realise they're in a manipulative relationship. Musically it's a close cousin to "What's The Matter Here " with Natalie fitting her words round a circular jangle in the same way and there's a nice acoustic guitar solo from Buck.
Side One closes with "Headstrong" where Merchant stridently declares that she won't be changed by anything her lover says or does. The sentiment is matched by her vocal tone and the uncompromising guitar squall and pounding rock drums reminiscent of Peter Gabriel. Again it's hampered by the lack of a good tune.
Thankfully Side Two is stronger by some distance. "Poison In The Well" addresses the issue of water pollution and the complacency of the water companies involved. While it's still over-wordy it has a good driving riff , brisk drumming and a decent tune.
Then they pull out an absolute cracker. "Dust Bowl " is a contender for their ( or anybody's really ) best song ever. Drew and Augustyniak sit it out and with only minimal bass it's just Merchant singing over Buck's delicate guitar riff. The lyric looking at poverty from a mother's point of view cuts deep and Merchant's vocal balancing anger and tenderness is a masterpiece of control.
"The Lion's Share " seems to be about an African dictator fleecing his people; there were plenty to choose from in 1989. It has an attractive tune and arrangement but it's very close to being a mellowed-out "Don't Talk ".
The last two tracks are more ambitious. The clumsily-titled "Hateful Hate " begins with a portentous little overture from Drew before the drums kick in and power a diatribe about the West's rape of Africa packing slavery, missionary activity colonialism and ivory poaching into its four and a half minutes. The attack is relentless and bolstered by a cast of string players in the latter half of the song to add to its nightmarish quality. It's one of those songs that you don't always want to listen to but have to admire for its ferocity.
"Jubilee" is a Merchant solo composition and as with "Verdi Cries" on the previous LP she drops the rest of the band and brings in some guest players to accompany her on a slow dark tale of a mentally disturbed church janitor who burns down the building on seeing some inter-racial dancing. She has the sense to vary the arrangement with each verse , a bit of harpsichord here , a bit of cello there, but even so it's a tad too long at six minutes. The last verse with its screeching strings is genuinely frightening and a stark conclusion to the LP.
It was always a tall ask for this to match "In My Tribe" ( although its best tracks do ) and I don't want to give the impression that it's a bad record. It's a good album that doesn't reach the same heights as its predecessor ( commercially it outperformed IMT ) and consequently doesn't get played as much.