10,000 Maniacs have always been a precocious band, with a sound and a sensibility far wiser than their years. But with In My Tribe, the group has finally come into maturity. It isn't simply that the songs are richer and more resonant this time around; the band itself seems to have grown. From the opening chords of "What's the Matter Here?" it's clear that the Maniacs' approach has been refined. The sound is full and diffuse, with Robert Buck's shimmering guitar work playing off the dark majesty of Dennis Drew's organ, as Jerome Augustyniaks's hi-hats jauntily drive the beat along. This is all pulled off without the instrumental clutter that occasionally bogged down The Wishing Chair, the Maniacs' last album. Instead, there's plenty of room for Natalie Merchant's vocals so much, in fact, that her delivery is more relaxed and expressive than ever.
All of which combines to make In My Tribe an astonishingly accessible record, something that industry observers will no doubt credit to its producer, Linda Ronstadt guru Peter Asher. Certainly Asher has done a lot to clean up the band's sound, from tightening the instrumental arrangements to bringing in ace engineer George Massenburg for a state-of-the-art digital recording. But this is no slick sellout; Asher should be applauded for the fact that he has allowed 10,000 Maniacs to remain themselves.
This is not, after all, the most obvious of pop acts. Even the requisite made-for-radio cover tune Cat Stevens's "Peace Train" is given a suitably subdued treatment, from its strum-along chorus to Augustyniaks's wacky percussion overdubs. Nonetheless, there's a durability to the songs on In My Tribe that makes the hooks snag and choruses catch in a way few groups ever manage. Sometimes it's just a jolt of melodic energy, as with the driving folk-rock chorus of "Don't Talk"; at other times, it's the way the music builds gradually to its climaxes, as in the carefully considered flow from verse to chorus in "Like the Weather."
Mostly, though, what makes these songs amount to more than just another set of well-crafted melodies is that they invariably address significant, real-life situations in entirely credible ways. Because her writing is so graceful, Merchant can frequently convey a world of feeling through a single phrase, as when the illiterate protagonist of "Cherry Tree" confesses, "All those lines and circles just frighten me."
Whether celebrating a small-town wedding ("My Sister Rose") or eloquently dissecting how the same piece of music can move in different ways through different lives ("Verdi Cries"), the songs here succeed because their reference points are honest and unadorned, like the facts of most listeners' lives. That the group has been able to reach such a level of achievement so quickly suggests that as good as In My Tribe may be, 10,000 Maniacs' best is yet to come. (RS 511)
(Posted: Oct 22, 1987)
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