Desert Island Discs: “In My Tribe” by 10,000 Maniacs (1987)Posted: December 1, 2011
Several times over the years I’ve bought an album/tape/CD not because I’d set out to purchase it, but simply on the strength of hearing it played in-store. I should do that more often: a disproportionate number of the ones I’ve bought this way end up among my Desert Island Discs. Why do you suppose that is? I’m at a complete loss to explain it and I’d like to hear a theory on why I’m so suggestible. But with record stores gone the way of the dodo, I may well have had my last such experience of spontaneous happy discovery.
This is one of them: 1987’s “In My Tribe” by 10,000 Maniacs. Heard it in-store at the old Musicland on Hennepin Avenue (I recall I was there looking for a ‘Mats album). I was wowed, floored, and bought the cassette on the spot.
The version I bought has their cover of Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train” at the beginning of Side Two. In the wake of Cat’s Salman Rushdie pronouncements a year or so later, the band insisted Elektra Records scrub the track from future pressings. Subsequently it was included on a compilation disc. I understand their desire not to enrich an extremist, but damn, that’s a great cover.
The rest of the album more than carries its own weight, though. “Like The Weather,” the single release, is as close to a perfect pop song as I’ve heard.
“What’s The Matter Here?” and “Don’t Talk” are peppy songs lamenting child abuse and alcohol abuse, respectively; as I described them to my niece, happy songs about sad topics. “A Campfire Song” features a guest appearance by R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, lead singer Natalie Merchant’s significant other at the time. And how many top-ten albums reference Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs? Plus Giuseppe Verdi? The only song that makes me hit the fast-forward is “Gun Shy,” in which Natalie rips her kid brother a new one for (gasp) joining the Army. Not that I’m a huge fan of the military, but geez, Nat, cut the kid some slack.
If you’ve known me any length of time, you know that I’m in love with Natalie’s voice. She sings the way every girl sounded that I had a crush on in high school (at least, the way they sounded in my fantasies). Music reviewer Robert Christgau once observed that Nat sings like English is not her first language. Naturally he was being snarky about it, but I think he’s right.
It all works, though, because of the exceptional musicianship of the amazingly tight band. Guitarist Robert Buck, keyboardist Dennis Drew, bassist Steve Gustafson, and drummer Jerry Augustyniak. Drew, Buck, and Augustyniak variously co-wrote most of the songs with Natalie. Guitarist and principal co-songwriter John Lombardo quit the band before this album, and I often wonder how many times he kicked himself later. He ended up re-joining after Nat left, though, so I suspect some bad vibes between the two.
Peter Asher produced this album and the one that followed, “Blind Man’s Zoo.” Did a fine job of it too. Asher was a renowned West Coast producer. In a previous life he was the guy with the glasses in Peter and Gordon back in the ‘60s, and his sister Jane was Paul McCartney’s longtime squeeze pre-Linda. I guess when a Beatle boinks your sister, and writes songs for you to sing, and invites you to hang out at Abbey Road, you absorb mad production skillz by osmosis.
10,000 Maniacs released other albums, including 1992’s “Our Time in Eden” and 1985’s “The Wishing Chair” (which I discovered only recently). Then Natalie left, Rob Buck died, the band regrouped with Lombardo and backing musician Mary Ramsey, and carry on to this day. It’s a close call between “Tribe,” “Eden,” and “Chair,” but I think “In Our Tribe” is their best work overall.
Note however that their best song, “Scorpio Rising,” is on “The Wishing Chair.”
(clips from Youtube)