Thursday, July 23, 2009

July 23: 10,000 Maniacs, "Our Time In Eden"

Artist: 10,000 Maniacs
Album: Our Time In Eden
Year: 1992
Label: Elektra

Most bands who take their name from cheap horror movies play metal or some louder, more aggressive music. Taking their name from the 1964 film, 2,000 Maniacs, indie/alternative music legends, 10,000 Maniacs were anything but loud, yet their music had as much impact as the most noisy bands ever. Combining strong pop appeal with elements of folk, jazz, and classical music, 10,000 Maniacs truly make music like no other group in history. Serving as one of the most important bands of the rise of "alternative" music, their brilliant musical compositions, powerful lyrics, and, well, the simple presence of Natalie Merchant make them one of the most beloved bands of the era. Releasing six "official" albums before singer Natalie Merchant left the band in 1993, it is the final release of this lineup, 1992's Our Time In Eden, that stands as their finest musical achievement, as well as one of the most exceptional albums of the generation.

Musically, Our Time In Eden represents the most diversity that 10,000 Maniacs showed on any of their records. From the bright, classic sounding horns of "Few And Far Between" and "Candy Everybody Wants," to the gorgeous string arrangements throughout the album, the additional instrumentation perfectly compliments the bands' "usual" sound. However, perhaps the reason that the horns sound so great is because they are, in fact, "The J.B. Horns." Yes, James Browns' former backing section, Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, and Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis are the group that play on the album. The fact that the trio were willing to lend their talents to the album is a testament to the musical stature of 10,000 Maniacs, and the collaboration is absolutely wonderful. Perhaps somewhat ironically, the lead violin and viola player on this album is Mary Ramsey, the woman who would replace Merchant after this album. Both of these elements helped Our Time In Eden to break into the top thirty on the album sales charts, as well as powering the single, "These Are Days" to the top spot of the Modern Rock charts. "These Are Days" remains one of 10,000 Maniacs most popular songs, and it perfectly captures the mood and sound of the blossoming alternative music scene.

Though they surrounded themselves with amazing backing musicians on Our Time In Eden, the "normal" members of 10,000 Maniacs are fantastic musicians in their own right. Guitarist Rob Buck (who is NOT related to R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, contrary to popular belief) plays brilliantly throughout the album, experimenting with everything from banjo to mandocello to electric sitar. The variation in his instrumentation, along with "standard" guitar playing helps to give the album a far more diverse musical feel. The moods and textures created by the keyboards, piano, and organ playing of Dennis Drew is one of the keys to the uniquely beautiful sound that is constant throughout every song on Our Time In Eden. The influence of the sound of Drew, one of the bands' founders and one of only two original members still with the band, can be heard in later bands like The Wallflowers and Counting Crows. Drummer and percussionist, Jerry Augustyniak and bassist, Steve Gustafson, form a fantastic rhythm section, and regardless of the tempo and style, they made the songs swing and move perfectly. Though the lyrics are often intense and eloquent, the music remains sometimes ironically upbeat, but always wonderfully melodic throughout all of Our Time In Eden.

Looking back at the era, few can lay as strong a claim to the title of "Queen Of Alternative Music" as Natalie Merchant. Her voice, style, and general attitude served as the influence for countless other singers, as well as the generation to which she was singing. Truly possessing use of the entire vocal range, her vocals move from the deepest octaves on "Noah's Dove" to the highest reaches on "These Are Days." Merchant's airy, often plaintive voice glides over the music, and it is hard to express the quality of her voice as anything short of "beautiful" and "graceful." Her gorgeous voice often plays in great juxtaposition to the insightful, socially conscious lyrics that she is often singing. While some of the songs on Our Time In Eden are simple, brilliant explorations of human emotions, there are equally as many songs with deep, moving meanings. Case in point is the albums' final track, "I'm Not The Man." The lyrics sing of a man falsely accused, jailed, and awaiting his execution. The lyrics are grim and vivid, with the chorus of, "...But I'm not the man...he goes free as I wait on the row for the man,to test the rope he'll slip around my throat... and silence me..." It is bold, potent lyrics like this, made greater by the fantastic vocal delivery of Natalie Merchant that makes the music of 10,000 Maniacs so phenomenal.

Few bands shaped the "alternative" music scene in the United States as much as 10,000 Maniacs. From the sound of their music to their style of dress and their general outlook on the world, their impact on both music and culture of the time is nearly immeasurable. Though they had albums with more jarring lyrics, it was on Our Time In Eden where the band found the perfect balance between their socially conscious lyrics and undeniably poppy music. Highlighted by the presence of The J.B. Horns and a handful of other guests, the musicians strong of 10,000 Maniacs are at their best on Our Time In Eden, and it remains one of the finest collection of musical compositions ever recorded. Capped off by the delicate, yet powerful singing of Natalie Merchant, Our Time In Eden cemented the groups legacy, and their songs are just as amazing today as they were when they were first released. Though ironically it would be their final album with Merchant on vocals, 10,000 Maniacs' 1992 release, Our Time In Eden, stands as their finest album, as well as one of the best and most significant albums of the decade.

Standout tracks: "These Are Days," "Few And Far Between," and "Candy Everybody Wants."

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