Saturday, 11 January 2014
125 The Wishing Chair - 10, 000 Maniacs
Purchased : 10 June 1989
Tracks : Can't Ignore The Train / Just As The Tide Was A Flowing / Scorpio Rising / Lilydale / Maddox Table / Everyone A Puzzle Lover / Arbor Day / Back o' the Moon / Tension Makes A Tangle / Among The Americans / Grey Victory / Cotton Alley / My Mother The War
This was another inevitable purchase, the album that preceded "In My Tribe " ordered from Save Records in Rochdale for £6.99
"The Wishing Chair " was their first LP for Elektra released in September 1985. It was recorded in London and there are two important personnel changes from the subsequent albums we've discussed. The first is the producer ; here it's Joe Boyd, fresh from REM's Fables Of The Reconstruction and with a long track record in English folk rock. At this point also the band were a sextet featuring an additional guitarist John Lombardo who had a hand in writing most of the songs. For both of these reasons "The Wishing Chair " is a different beast to its successors ; the sound is denser, more "indie", less pop. Add to that Natalie Merchant's murkier vocal tone and opaque lyrics and this is a harder album to tackle. It's notable they played no more than two of these songs when I went to see them.
"Can't Ignore The Train " a Merchant / Lombardo opens the LP at a brisk pace with nice guitar work and an attractive tune which Merchant does her best to thread her words into in true Morrissey fashion leading to some odd phrasing at times. Much of the lyric is impenetrable -"through adventure we are not adventuresome" anyone ? - but the general gist is the inevitable march of time leaving the protagonist "sitting in the wishing chair ". Though it did little business as a single it gets the LP off to a good start .
"Just As The Tide Was A Flowing " is a traditional tune about a sailor's wife left feeling abandoned. It's a lovely arrangement with Jerry Augustyniak's drums powering the song up again each time the title phrase concludes a stanza close and the middle eight bringing in Dennis Drew's organ and an uncredited recorder solo to good effect. Merchant sings it in a strident tone which is fine but every so often there's an odd vowel sound - "singeng " "hah" for "hair" - which makes you wonder if she's doing it deliberately.
"Scorpio Rising " was the other single though not such an obvious choice. It's built around Steve Gustafson's melodic bassline reminding you that these guys were Anglophile Joy Division fans. Just over two minutes in Buck ( a co-composer with Merchant and Lombardo ) breaks out with a scorching solo which suggests the power relationships in the band were different at this time. Merchant's lyric protesting at abusive treatment points the way towards Tori Amos and Alanis Morrisette.
"Lilydale " is interesting in that it's a song about walking through a cemetery that predates the Smiths' Cemetery Gates. It's a gentler folkier tune composed by Merchant and Buck with the latter again garnering a solo, this time an intricate acoustic passage.
"Maddox Table" is a solo Merchant effort about a man who spent his working life at a furniture makers and is played at a brisk pace necessarily to fit all her lyric in. There's a great moment at 1: 28 when she pauses for breath and the guys stop along with her ; I wonder if she got the joke ? The twin guitars of Lombardo and Buck are fantastic here, worthy of Johnny Marr at his best.
"Everyone A Puzzle Lover " is a Merchant- Lombardo song and even more verbose. After two verses pondering why some people are born to success and others hardship it switches to a personal account of a grandfather's last words. It's mid-paced with Buck's mandolin and Drew's accordion the dominant instruments and imbuing the last verses with appropriate sensitivity. The song could probably have been improved by a chorus.
The brief "Arbor Day " is another solo Merchant effort . Drew stays on the accordion and it's played in waltz time. Merchant sings - with more bizarre pronunciations - of some subversive writer detailing turbulent times. I've a feeling I should know who or what inspired it but I haven't cracked the code yet.
"Back o' the Moon " seems to be a guide to life from an old man to a young girl Jenny whose name is used for musical punctuation. Again it's very dense and wordy. Drew co-wrote it with Merchant but it's Buck's mandolin that dominates the track.
"Tension Makes A Tangle " is a re-recording of a song from their indie days. It's a stream of consciousness poem about family tragedies and triumphs which Merchant ploughs through with her odd vowels seemingly oblivious to what the musicians are doing behind her. Around a basic acoustic strum Drew and one of the guitarists seem to be in a duel who can come up with the best approximation of whalesong. It's the oddest track on the LP.
"Among The Americans" has the most straightforward lyric about historic Native American displacement and veers between drone-y Cocteau Twins dream rock and their more usual upbeat folk-pop but again a proper chorus would have given it greater impact.
"Grey Victory " describes the effects of the Hiroshima bomb in the style of a Wilfrid Owen poem. Her graphic lyrics e.g "evil debris of human bodies " are an uncomfortable fit with the breezy music where Buck plays looping Robert Smith solos over Lombardo's chiming arpeggios.
"Cotton Alley " is an account of (rather rough) childhood teasing possibly leading up to a loss of virginity in the titular location. The sepia-toned music has Augustyniak playing brushes behind Drew's woozy organ and the mixed-down guitars although Merchant doesn't soften her tone to match.
The album concludes with another re-recorded song "My Mother The War " probably the most celebrated song from their early days and a live staple. There's a strong Joy Division influence in Gustafson's melodic bassline and Augustyniak's upfront drumming. Merchant delivers a non-judgemental lyric about an army mother but the key player here is Buck whose atonal screeching guitar tells you what's really going on wherever her son is posted.
Some fans dislike the polished -up sound on "In My Tribe" and cite this album as their favourite. I think it's a bit heavy-going by Side Two where I find myself just waiting for the last song but it is more consistent than "Blind Man's Zoo" and a worthy addition to the collection.