10,000 Maniacs

At 14 years old, nothing stirred me like 10,000 Maniacs--the righteousness of their songs, the style and unmistakable alto of Natalie Merchant, like a cool senior girl in funky tights and vintage clothes. Listening to their two-CD boxed set, all I can say is: What was I thinking? Songs about child abuse, puppet dictators, teen pregnancy and Jack Kerouac--it's like reading a series of smart, painfully earnest college essays, full of 50-cent words and casual references to opera. In the '80s, Merchant was a kind of patron saint to pretentious girls in English Honors, which is exactly who I was, choosing 10,000 Maniacs over Color Me Badd the way I chose theater over spirit squad. Decades later, the band's weaknesses pop out: the way the lyrics' sanctimoniousness rarely matches the adult-contemporary music, Merchant's tendency to go flat, to overreach the limitations of her (still lovely and distinctive) voice. Which isn't to say there aren't some classics here: "Verdi Cries," "Candy Everybody Wants" and "These Are Days" sent me to the CD player to press repeat. But, of course, the only compelling reason to buy the collection is the second disc, "The Obscure and Unknown Recordings," which offers precious little. Early demos are almost unlistenable, and covers of Lulu's "To Sir With Love" and Nico's "These Days" are merely pleasant curiosities. Though pretty, the version of Tom Waits' "I Hope That I Don't Fall in Love With You" is almost too much--it's hard to believe sweet Natalie when she coos, "The night does funny things inside a man/These old tomcat feelings you don't understand." The strongest cut is "Let the Mystery Be," a duet with David Byrne from the band's 1993 MTV Unplugged disc, a simple song that provides the perfect counterpoint to Merchant's overwrought hippie-girl meanderings. Listening to these two CDs, it's slightly embarrassing to remember when Merchant represented the perfect PETA cool--or when I actually believed she was dating Michael Stipe (I love the '80s!)--but there is something admirable about her relentlessness, especially in a decade when protest music was as uncool as the thrift-store peasant dresses she wore.

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