‘In my Tribe’, the third album by Jamestown, New York band 10000 Maniacs released in 1987 remains in my top 50 albums of all time. The Wishing chair, their second album is in my top 100 and the MTV Unplugged sessions from 1993 still makes me shudder slightly…for the right reasons.
Three hours later and full of the joys of Natalie Merchant, especially “Hey Jack Kerouac” which still makes me bob my head from side-to-side like a delirious teenager and “Verdi Cries” which has completely the opposite effect but never fails to make me stare, watery eyed, into the speaker cones, I opened up “Twice Told Tales”.
“Twice Told Tales” is 10,000 Maniacs ninth studio album and is a collection of traditional folk songs from the British Isles which have been given the Maniacs ‘special touch’.
The first thing that hit me ( a little to my embarrassment) was that the chocolate vocals of Natalie Merchant were no more, no more being 22 years ago. Natalie left in 1993 (without telling me) to pursue a successful solo career and has never looked back. Once over this news, I continued with the sleeve notes and was delighted to see three of the original maniacs credited on this new album including founding members Dennis Drew (Keyboards) and Steve Gustafson (Bass) as well as John Lombardo (guitars and backing vocals) who joined, along with Natalie Merchant at the end of 1981 when they changed their name from Still Life to Burn Victims and finally settled with 10,000 Maniacs after the 1964 low-budget spatter-flick two thousand maniacs. John Augustyniak, who originally joined in 1983 on drums also returns.
Now I’m presuming that ‘Twice told tales’, given it’s British folk roots, is a reference to a collection of short stories published in 1837 and written by Nathaniel Hawthorne…but hang on, he’s American! The title of his works however was taken from a line in Shakespeare’s ‘The life and death of King John’ (“Life is as tedious as a twice told tale/Vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man) so I’m slowly justifying my presumptions although I’m starting to wonder whether the maniacs title, given their history with horror films, is a reference to the 1963 Vincent Price classic of the same name.
So I look this up and realise that the film is based on two of the stories from the book as well as a further novel; “The house of the seven gables” and I start to wish I hadn’t been so curious.
Twice told Tales opens with an instrumental piece “Lady Mary Ramsey” that will not fail to make you tap your feet at least, if not google local maypole dancing clubs as the viola beckons to you to shed your shoes and skip like you just don’t care before the current lead singer Mary Ramsey (was the track named after her or she after the track…or a horror film from the sixties…) drifts into our lives with ‘The song of wandering Aengus’, an a Capella version of the poem by William Butler-Yeates which is, quite frankly, beautiful. The third track, ‘She moved through the fair’, sees the whole band finally join and confirm that you are indeed listening to the 10,000 maniacs of the 80’s, 90’s and today with their unmistakable signature sound infused into this traditional Irish folk song (In Mixolydian Mode if your interested).
Next is “Dark Eyed Sailor’, another traditional ‘Broken Token Ballad’ whose lyrics can be traced back to the 19th Century and over the years has been covered by many including Christy Moore in 1972 and Steeleye Span in 1970 on their debut album; ‘Hark! The village wait’.
‘Misty Moisty Morning’ has all the elements of ‘happy maniacs’ over an age old tale whilst ‘Bonny May’ and ‘Canadee I-O’ slow you down, especially as it could be Natalie Merchant returning to the fold for the latter with melodies not unlike ‘Peace Train’ and ‘Like the Weather’ from ‘In my tribe’. ‘Do you love an apple’ continues (almost exactly) along the same melodic lines as Canadee I-O and is followed by ‘Greenwood Sidey’ which I’m sure Aragorn may have sung (in a different language) at his coronation in Tolkien/Jackson’s ‘The Return of the King’.
‘Carrickfergus’ is another traditional Irish song which Mary and the band have again managed to make their own whilst ‘The death of Queen Jane’, an English folk song apparently written about Jane Seymour (Henry VIII’s third wife, not Jane of Le Jardin de Max Factor) is a slow lament to her sad tale.
‘Wild mountain Thyme’ is another well known Irish folk song which over the years has been covered by many including The Byrds, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Rod Stewart, The Strawbs, James Taylor and Kate Rusby to name but a few and again 10KM (I know, I know but I’m bored of writing it in full) have made even more beautiful again.
The penultimate track, ‘Marie’s Wedding’ tempts us back to the wet grass (beneath our feet) with violas and fiddles a’plenty on this traditional Scottish dance track and then all too soon (after 13 tracks and a good 50 minutes) the album closes, as it opened, with ‘Lady Mary Ramsey II’.
I didn’t want to like this album after looking at the cover, which is full of stereotypical images of Britain such as town criers, and finding out that Natalie Merchant was no longer involved (and hasn’t been for almost all of my adult life so far) but the melodies that 10,000 maniacs can offer coupled with some of the great songs and tales of our shores and elements of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span (which is also proof that reincarnation, in band turnover terms, really can work) has got under my skin…in a good way.
I loved your take on the new record. You’re not the first person to just recently realize Natalie left 22 years ago even though this is our 4th album since then. Here’s a few things you might be interested in knowing. Rob Buck passed away in 2000. the title Twice Told Tales works precisely because of it’s long mangled history. sort of like folk music itself. Mary Googled her name and found the sheet music for those two different songs. They are two different styles too, but I can’t remember the technical terms now. Thank you so much for taking an interest in us for all these years. we still play all your favorites.
Come to the UK soon for festival season, I’m sure there’s a lot of people here would love to see you and the rest of 10000 maniacs perform this fine album on ‘home soil’.
I’ll be at the front!