Album Reviews

10,000 Maniacs

Playing Favorites

Artist:     10,000 Maniacs

Album:     Playing Favorites

Label:     Omnivore

Release Date:     06/03/2016

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Lured away by the siren song of a solo career and its promise of creative freedom, Natalie Merchant left 10,000 Maniacs high and dry in 1993 saying that she “didn’t want art by committee anymore.” So much for the spirit of collaboration.

More than 20 years on, the folky alternative-rock outfit has never really recovered from her departure, although Mary Ramsey has, during intermittent stints, admirably filled her shoes. With Merchant still conspicuously absent from the festivities, Ramsey and the remaining core of Dennis Drew, Steven Gustafson, Jerome Augustyniak, John Lombardo and Jeff Erickson are celebrating the band’s 35th anniversary in 2016.

Forget the idea of offering them coral or jade, or whatever shiny trinket is apropos for such an occasion. Playing Favorites is their gift, a colorful and effervescent, if self-satisfied, live circus with a set list chock full of hits performed in their home town of Jamestown, New York. Unlike the rather drab and uninspired MTV Unplugged album, Playing Favorites finds a relaxed and cherry 10,000 Maniacs fleshing out their already full, rich arrangements with sunny horns, rustic strings and soulful backing vocals. In the process, they enhance the lush, wistful sounds of “Stockton Gala Days” and “Rainy Nights,” while brightening the polished pop sensibilities of “Candy Everybody Wants,” “My Sister Rose” and “Hey Jack Kerouac.”

This time around, “Because The Night” lacks the conviction and keen sense of desperation Merchant brought to their original cover of the Bruce Springsteen-Patti Smith classic. And they labor through “What’s the Matter Here” as if half asleep and groggy. Wake up, though, to the gentle stabbing of a sublimely rendered “Trouble Me” and snap to attention with tight, upbeat versions of “Like the Weather” and “Can’t Ignore the Train,” because this is a party for a band that once almost died.

– Peter Lindblad

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