College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #329 to #327

329. 10,000 Maniacs, In My Tribe (1987)

“I think music can unify people in a way,” 10,000 Maniacs lead singer Natalie Merchant said not long after the release of In My Tribe, the band’s third album. “What can be more personal than a person singing about something they feel strongly about?”

Merchant was largely in charge of penning the lyrics she sang between and amidst her mildly anxious twirls as the fellas behind her played music that was sweetly melodic and often invested with a jangly bounce. For In My Tribe, she concentrated her efforts on the topics that represented her growing awareness of social ills. Album opener “What’s the Matter Here?” addresses child abuse, and “Cherry Tree” is about adult illiteracy (“For I’ve been watching and wondering/ Why your face is changing with every line you read/ All those lines and circles, to me, a mystery/ Eve pull down the apple and give taste to me”). Merchant’s deliberate directness was the sort that, in less deft hands, could easily make the songs seem didactic and therefore staid, the sort of earnest, anguished folk that wasn’t especially in fashion in the late nineteen-eighties. Instead, the album’s tracks glimmer with a bright pop sensibility. The incongruity works for the material.

“On In My Tribe, there was that separation of lyrics going in one direction and the music going in another direction, one being very jovial and the other one being in some points very violent, other points very melancholy,” Merchant told the Los Angeles Times.

The unique sound stemmed somewhat from a need for reinvention. John Lombardo, a band co-founder who wrote most of the music on preceding album The Wishing Chair and other early releases, quit the band shortly before it was time to start work on In My Tribe. Merchant and her bandmates tried to preserve the musical sensibility he’d set for the group while subtly expanding on and sharpening it. The initial attempts to do so, delivered in demo form, were met with disfavor by their record label, Elektra Records. That rejection, combined with the sense that The Wishing Chair underperformed high expectations commercially, convinced the band that there was a lot riding on In My Tribe.

“There was a lot of pressure on us,” keyboardist Dennis Drew told Rolling Stone. “If Tribe hadn’t been successful, there never would have been another album.”

Further supporting the worrisome thesis, but also providing reassurance that Elektra was willing to invest in the band’s success, label execs rounded up a producer with a resume full of hits. Peter Asher presided over albums for James Taylor and J.D. Souther, and he was the go-to for Linda Ronstadt, producing every one of the releases in her superstar run of the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties. He went straight from working with 10,000 Maniacs to producing Cher’s 1987 self-titled album. Asher was not the typical choice for an act prepared to remain primarily on college radio.

Initially, the working relationship between Asher and 10,000 Maniacs was rocky. The band was skeptical of the adult-contemporary leanings of his previous work, and they adamantly disliked woking on his home turf of Los Angeles. Asher eventually won them over, mostly by providing unyielding support.

“Every step of the way, he was very diplomatic,” Merchant said at the time. “He kept reiterating, ‘I want the band to sound like the band.’ He just improved on the actual sounds of the recording.”

The vibrant track “Hey Jack Kerouac,” quietly heartbreaking “Don’t Talk,” and chugging “City of Angels” prove the surprisingly wisdom of that recording quality spruce up. Without sacrificing the integrity of the songwriting and lithe musicianship, Asher gives the album sheen of professionalism that accentuates the comfortably unassuming skill of all involved. The clarity also showcases Merchant’s warm, precise, and emotionally resonant vocals. When placed against the genially spacey singing of R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, on the lilting “A Campfire Song,” the refined power of Merchant’s elegant phrasing is made all the clearer. And the lovely, spare album closer “Verdi Cries,” about hearing opera recordings from a fellow hotel resident while on a seaside vacation (“With just three days more/ I’d have just about learned the entire score to Aida”), she manages to convey volumes of feeling with simple turns of tone. Merchant’s place in 10,000 Maniacs has its origins in her youthful visit to her hometown’s college radio station, where future bandmate Steve Gustafson was among the student leaders, her arms filled with records she wanted to hear on the air, convinced the community was in dire need of Brian Eno’s “Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy).” It’s a long way from that to deserving music stardom, but the whole of In My Tribe carries her to that elevated state.

“It would be very nice if the album gets a lot of radio play, but I can’t weigh my value as a human being on that,” Merchant said upon the album’s release. “I think we’re more interested in moving people than moving units.”

It took some time, and the false start of a lead single that followed the commonplace practice of trying to earn new fans with the familiarity of a cover song (which the band soon disavowed and successfully demanded be stripped from pressing of the album), but 10,000 Maniacs did indeed start getting some real radio play. “Like the Weather,” a song with a burbling rhythm and lyrics about depression, was a fine representation of the happy paradoxes 10,000 Maniacs created in their songs. While hardly a mainstream smash (10,000 Maniacs made only one trip to the Billboard Top 40 with Merchant in the lead singer role, doing so with a Patti Smith cover they performed on an episode of MTV Unplugged), the song’s video became an MTV mainstay and significantly raised the prominence of the band.

“It can be strange,” noted Merchant while still adjusting to her newfound, and growing, fame. “I opened up one of those catalogs that says ‘Get 12 Albums for a Penny,’ and there was 10,000 Maniacs in between Jethro Tull and Tina Turner. It’s very odd, because I can remember my brother picking out Peter Frampton albums from those same catalogs. Now we’re part of the American entertainment world.”

328. Ramones, Too Tough to Die (1984)

For their eighth studio album, Too Tough to Die, the Ramones took steps to recapture their past glory. After the only partially successful attempt to make a back-to-basics Ramones album with the 1983 release Subterranean Jungle, the band brought back producer Ed Stasium, who they worked with on several albums in the late nineteen-seventies, still within the band’s heyday. More significantly, former drummer Tommy Ramone was recruited to help shape the album. Tommy was producer or co-producer on the Ramones’ earliest albums, some of them undisputed classics. He wouldn’t be back behind the drum kit — his replacement’s replacement, Richie Ramones, took that task — but he pitched in on songwriting and attempted to help them reassert themselves as icons of punk, a scene that had recently taken a turn into darker, angrier alleyways.

There are times on Too Tough to Die when the Ramones push back against more modern punks, as if arguing that could make the same kind of racket if they wanted to. Thunderous “Mama’s Boy” and hardcore-adjacent “Wart Hog,” the latter made yet more raucous by Dee Dee Ramone’s jackhammer vocals, are like bloody knuckle jabs against anyone who’d dare claim the band had been surpassed by younger, hungrier practitioners of guitar, bass, and drum fury. The year before the album’s release, the year before, Johnny Ramones fractured his skull in a street fight with another musician. These guys were still scrappers, and it shows up on the album.

If there is an occasionally signal that the band can keep up, the album simultaneously maintains that the Ramones sound best when they do what they’d always done before, which was maybe mistakenly ascribed as punk. They made righteously raw rock ‘n’ roll music that draws a straight line to the earliest examples of the form. “No Go” is like an attempt to launch a rockabilly dance craze, and the slick title cut is updated garage rock. Fantastic instrumental “Durango 95” comes and goes in less than a minute, providing another example of the no-fuss-no-muss expertise of the band. “Daytime Dilemma” is crisp and sharp, an indicator of where rock music could have headed if the decade’s production tricks hadn’t swamped in.

As much as the Ramones, and their handlers, knew a return to form was in order, they, too, weren’t immune to the allure of futzing around with studio slickness. The mirage of mainstream celebration was a strong one for the band. They longed to have a real hit, and the album’s clearest attempt at that is “Howling At The Moon (Sha-La-La),” a song about drugs (“I took the law and threw it away/ Cause there’s nothing wrong/ It’s just for play”) that finds lead singer Joey Ramone tempering his bellow to suit a “Sha la la la” chorus and the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart enlisted on keyboards to give the cut a post–new wave tingle. The play for airplay didn’t work. Surely even the uninitiated instinctively knew the Ramones were more convincing on the decidedly anti-pop “Endless Vacation,” with Dee Dee on lead vocals again, careening back and forth between rapid-fire singing and bratty, taunting drawl.

The return of Tommy was welcome and short-lived. Following Too Tough to Die, he only returned to fold way down the line, when the band had folded and the harsh passage of time meant that tributes were in order. When Tommy died, in 2014, he was the last surviving original member of the Ramones.

327. The Waterboys, This Is the Sea (1985)

“In New York in December, during The Waterboys’ first American tour, I bought 2 huge hard-bound books filled with thick blank white pages in which to assemble my new songs,” Mike Scott, frontman of the Waterboys, later wrote in explanation of the beginnings of This Is the Sea. “These ‘black books’ were soon filled with lyrics, poems, dreams, artwork ideas, instructions-to-myself, sonic blueprints, manifestos-of-the-spirit, and all manner of content pertaining to the record about to be made.”

These tomes stuffed full of jotted ideas yielded an abundance of material. According to Scott, he wrote around thirty-five or forty songs, eventually culling the bounty to the handful he felt were the strongest. These nine numbers became This Is the Sea, the third album credited to the Waterboys. Collectively, they make a strong argument for cultivating a vast garden that is then trimmed to leave only the best plants,

This Is the Sea opens with the contained fervor of “Don’t Bang the Drum.” Restless horns and grumbling percussion give way to a charging rock song, the band in splendid synchronicity as Scott intones, “Well here we are in a special place/ What are you gonna do here?/ Now we stand in a special place/ What will you do here?” It’s less revolution from the Waterboys’ previous sound and more realization of it at the highest level. The album proceeds in this mode, offering cut after cut that’s utterly exceptional. “The Pan Within” almost sizzle, and “Trumpets” is a brisk, inventive pop song that bolsters its central metaphor (“Your love feels like trumpets sound”) with celebratory musicianship. The album houses a yet better exploration of love in “The Whole of the Moon,” its thumping rhythm, escalating fullness, and Scott’s impassion singing giving bold life to shrewdly insightful lyrics about awestruck admiration for a true love (“I pictured a rainbow/ You held it in your hands/ I had flashes/ But you saw the plan”). It’s perfect.

The majestic title cut closes the album, and it’s expansive earthiness offers something of a transition to the next phase of the Waterboys. Scott later categorized This Is the Sea as the crescendoing endpoint of the first phase of the Waterboys, typified by layered sounds and soaring pop sensibilities. Next up, he decided it was time for the outfit he led to explore its roots, to dig into the striking traditional music of their homeland and the surrounding area. Still at the peak of his creative powers, he set off to make a new, different triumph.

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

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