10,000 Maniacs Pull the Plug
MTV Unplugged; Elektra
A couple of years ago, two guys were sitting in the MTV offices in downtown Manhattan, throwing down some Bloody Maries and toasting the success they've been having with Downtown Julie Brown. One of them, in an alcoholic fog, chortled as he suggested that MTV could do nothing wrong. "Why," he stammered, "we could even do a show that was all acoustic and people would watch it..."
The only problem was, when Jim Burns and Robert Small, the inventors of MTV Unplugged, woke up the next morning, they forgot they were joking. Now, MTV Unplugged has become a '90s rite of rock 'n' roll passage. It's an easy way to gain some artistic respectability and seem down to earth all at the same time: go on TV and perform in an intimate setting, quietly strumming your aged and weathered guitar. Rod Stewart's done it. Neil Young's done it. R.E.M. and Arrested Development and Eric Clapton have all done it, and all have made some big bucks off the albums that were born from these quiet evenings with friends (save R.E.M., who haven't released their Unplugged sessions).
Now, we can add 10,000 Maniacs to the list. The problem with this CD, like most of the other MTV Unplugged performances, is that it is pretty good: As much as a self-respecting music lover would like to scorn this new trend, it's hard with the music that's coming out of the MTV studios. These 14 songs hold up well in an acoustic format, and it's nice to get some of the intimacy that comes from a live recording, especially with Natalie Merchant. Her attraction has always been the ethereal realness she emanates, not her vocal range, and this sense of closeness is only amplified in this setting.
However, while the CD is good, there's nothing too new or exciting here. Half the tracks on Unplugged are from the Maniacs' last album, Our Time in Eden, which was primarily acoustic anyway, so for the most part, we don't get any unusual approaches to their songs. While there are some rougher edges on Eden, if you aren't listening carefully, you probably won't be able to tell if you were hearing the unplugged version or the album version.
Still, some songs stand out: "Don't Talk" from In My Tribe is beautiful and haunting in a way that it is not on the album; Bruce Springsteen's "Because the Night" is a treat for anyone who hasn't seem them do it live; and the album's closer, "Noah's Dove," is truly remarkable--chilling, restrained and passionate all at once. However, on the whole you're left with the sense that while this disk is good, maybe it's not good enough for a whole new album of the same material that was just released last year.
That being said, it is true that the band--made up of the four regular Maniacs and then and additional nine musicians, including two bassoonists, a cellist, a banjoist and a mandolinist--accompanying Natalie is superb. For such a large acoustic band, they sound wonderful, complementing each other perfectly throughout every song. The musicians all know that Natalie is the star, so there is no need for anyone else to try and steal the spotlight; instead, they focus on playing well together. Track after track features subtly lyrical arrangements. "It's true that you are touched by something," Merchant sings in the album's opener, "These Are Days," and this sums up the feeling the listener gets from this album, It leaves you with a warm feeling inside, and makes you want to twirl around in that childish way that Merchant does in concert. The audience at MTV seems plenty impressed, and you probably would be too, if you got to sit in on a Maniacs' recording session.
Unfortunately, the chances of that happening in the near future aren't very good. After finishing their summer tour in support of Our Time in Eden, 10,000 Maniacs disbanded. In their typically understated way, they acknowledge this in the liner notes for MTV Unplugged : "Special thanks to all the fans, friends, and family who have supported us throughout the last 12 years." And while Our Time in Eden was a great album, it does seem like the time was right to call it quits. Natalie and the rest of the band seemed to become more and more distanced from each other: This recording opens with someone saying "Let's welcome Natalie and 10,000 Maniacs."
That can't feel too good, especially considering there are 13 musicians on stage. Who's who? Who knows...and who cares. Natalie is all that matters; at least this seems to be the message that's coming across. Most R.E.M. fans know that Peter Buck is a great guitarist. But how many of you have even heard of Steven Gustafson? The band seemed to implode under the burgeoning weight of Natalie's popularity, so now they've decided to throw in the towel.
If you're a 10,000 Maniacs fan, buy MTV Unplugged. It's a decent album, not too thrilling, but probably worth your 12 bucks, even if it is no Rod Stewart: Unplugged...and Seated. But then again, what is?