10,000 Maniacs, R.E.M. and The Decemberists

I recently read a Robert Christgau review of 10,000 Maniacs and its obvious that he thought more of R.E.M. but didn’t totally trash 10,000 Maniacs either. Then I read the Trouser Press reviews – and I like Trouser Press much more than Robert Christgau.

HOWEVER, Christgau did say one thing that I think is correct – but I wanted to dig deeper to see if I could better understand things when you compare the two bands – who were two of my all time favorites in the 80’s and still today. He more or less said that Natalie Merchant was creating “word salad poetry” and that she had a funny weird Polynesian accent.

I listened to several of my favorite 10,000 Maniacs songs and read the lyrics closely – “Back of the Moon” and “Can’t Ignore The Train” and yeah – the lyrics sound like a 20 year old straining to write poetry and perhaps trying to be a little too literate. I did try to decipher the lyrics and only could a little bit. Then it struck me – Natalie Merchants absolutely fabulous voice NEEDS lyrics – because the way she phrases her singing. To prove that theory I listened to her singing “Don’t Go Back to Rockville” by R.E.M. and while a decent cover – it sounded pretty boring, actually.

I then read several of R.E.M.’s lyrics and listened to Michael Stipe’s “Mumble-Singing” and found the lyrics to be more direct – even when he’s mumbling. Later he did try his hand at political lyrics – but I think I’ve learned from this that political lyrics always have a way of sounding out of date or too “preachy”. Maybe if you were playing folk style in a Greenwich Village coffee house in the 60’s – but hate to say it – rock music should be a little less obtuse, dense or preachy.

Another band that is in this genre somewhat is The Decemberists. Their album “The King is Dead” is really superb – probably their best and most like R.E.M. and 10,000 Maniacs – and having Peter Buck and Gillian Welch (plus many other super guests) was brilliant. But I still do like some of their really quirky earlier stuff – I think I listened to Picaresque 10,00 Million times . . . The first two albums were pretty great two. I didn’t care for their live shows where just when they were building steam – they stopped and had these stupid sing along thingies that totally broke the mood. Why did they do that?

Anyway – damn the critics – sometimes there are secrets to why a song and a band sound great – and the critics miss the whole point. Natalie Merchant singing straight on simple lyrics sounds boring – but when she sings word salad dense poetic lyrics its beautiful strong and compelling.

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