In a crystal-clear soprano, Mary Ramsey sings, "A day when love came/ Came easy like what's lost now found," while around her surges the energy of one of America's best-loved musical ensembles. The words are from "Rainy Day," which opens Love Among the Ruins, the new album from 10,000 Maniacs - and the song burns with the fire of a band reborn.
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Since the early 1980s, 10,000 Maniacs have crafted smart, subtle songs with shimmering melodies and affecting lyrics. Over the course of an EP, six studio albums and a live collection, guitarist Robert Buck, keyboardist Dennis Drew, bassist Steven Gustafson, drummer Jerome Augustyniak and vocalist Natalie Merchant fused funk and folk, edgy guitar and atmospheric keyboards. The band achieved a gentle yet insistent signature sound, delighting critics and fans at home and abroad. When Merchant departed for a solo career in 1993, 10,000 Maniacs sought both to continue their legacy and blaze new trails. They found their answer, figuratively, in their own backyard.
Guitarist John Lombardo, one of the first Maniacs, had departed in 1986 to form a more acoustic-leaning duo. As John and Mary, Lombardo and singer-violist Mary Ramsey (whose work has appeared on records by Ani DiFranco, Billy Bragg and the Goo Goo Dolls) released two celebrated CDs - and kept closely in touch with 10,000 Maniacs. Buck and Augustyniak played on the pair's recordings; Mary graced the band's last two albums.
"John and I sort of saw ourselves as cousins of the band," Ramsey says. "We toured with them and were always very close. In 1994 I went to Europe to support their MTV Unplugged album. When I returned, John suggested we go down and jam with the band. It felt really natural, and we all thought, 'Let's go for it.' Our playing together took off and it's been going ever since." Attests Drew: "What Mary brings to us is fantastic - not only her singing, but also her status as another real soloist. We have a whole new color and flavor." Lombardo reveals: "I'd played with a lot of people besides Mary after leaving the band, but things never really clicked. This is like coming back to a family situation."
The regrouped 10,000 Maniacs made their debut at a club show in Rochester, N.Y., in March 1995. This was the first of 12 shows in the spring of 1995 they dubbed the "Unscathed" tour. It led them through the northeastern United States to Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, Pa., and Buffalo, N.Y. Of the sextet's performance at Boston's Paradise Club, the Boston Globe reported, "The band showed a sold-out crowd the path to its surprisingly smooth and viable rebirth" (April 3, 1995).
That November, the Maniacs played dates in Cleveland and Chicago. The Cleveland Plain Dealer remarked of their Agora Ballroom show: "Five of the group's original members and new vocalist Mary Ramsey put on an engaging show that combined old favorites and promising new songs.... Saddled with the unenviable task of filling Merchant's shoes, Ramsey brilliantly rose to the occasion" (Nov. 13, 1995). The Chicago Tribune commented on the band's Park West performance: "If the 11 new singles rolled out ... are any indication of things to come, the new incarnation of 10,000 Maniacs may eclipse the old" (Nov. 13, 1995). In attendance at that show was Geffen Records A&R rep Jim Powers, who signed them to the label in January 1996.
10,000 Maniacs' bold new colors are on vivid display on Love Among the Ruins. Primarily written by Ramsey and Lombardo, the lyrics to songs like the soaring title track ("Falling, captured, crawling, rapture"); the evocative "Even With My Eyes Closed" ("Seasons pass/ Like sand inside a glass/ And nothing, nothing returns"); and the yearning "Across the Fields" ("Tell me the song that you sing in the trees in the dawning") reminisce and reflect on loss, but also strive for a sense of peace, balance and acceptance. They are an exploration of the everyday struggle to survive.
Says Augustyniak of the band's musical method: "We build on layers, adding density and strength. Whether we're in our pop music vein or a more dance-oriented one, we maintain a very democratic approach." Gustafson further illuminates their sonic makeup: "Jerry also plays guitar, and that helps his thinking as a drummer. Rob and John complement each other - John's great with texture, Rob with leads. I concentrate on tone. My favorite music is reggae, and I like the solidity of that bass work. And Mary's the most studied musician of all of us."
This creative synergy had its beginnings in rural Jamestown, N.Y., where Buck, Drew, Gustafson and Merchant, calling themselves Still Life, assembled in February 1981. Lombardo joined shortly thereafter, and the band played their first gig as 10,000 Maniacs on Labor Day 1981. In 1982 the group released an EP, Human Conflict Number Five, then added Augustyniak for their first full-length album, 1983's Secrets of the I Ching.
Famed British DJ John Peel loved I Ching. As a result, 10,000 Maniacs' first fanatic following was European. Signed in 1984 to Elektra Records, the band enlisted producer Joe Boyd (Fairport Convention, Nick Drake) for their major-label bow, The Wishing Chair. In short order they began appearing on European television, and critics were soon spreading word of their emergence as a force on the pop landscape.
1985 saw the release of In My Tribe. Produced by Peter Asher (James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt), the album would go on to platinum sales. By 1988, 10,000 Maniacs had performed on "Saturday Night Live," cracked the Top 40, scored two charting singles, "What's the Matter Here" and "Like the Weather," and shared stages with R.E.M.
Blind Man's Zoo (1989), characterized by darker, richer tones, marked the band's arrival as a mature musical collective. It reached No. 13 on the Billboard 200 album chart, partly due to heavy rotation for "Trouble Me." A year later, Hope Chest compiled their very earliest recordings. With 1992's Our Time in Eden, produced by Paul Fox (XTC, Robyn Hitchcock), the group expanded their horizons by inviting James Brown horn aces Maceo Parker, Pee Wee Ellis and Fred Wesley to make guest appearances. The cut "These Are Days" became a hit, and the Maniacs later played at MTV's Inaugural Ball for newly elected president Bill Clinton. MTV Unplugged, Merchant's swan song with the band, signaled the closing of a chapter for 10,000 Maniacs.
Love Among the Ruins opens a new one. Produced and recorded by John Keane (R.E.M., Indigo Girls, Cowboy Junkies) at his Athens, Ga., studio and by Fred Maher (Lloyd Cole, Lou Reed) at Woodstock, N.Y.'s Bearsville Studios, the album is a work of depth, texture and surprise.
In essence, Love Among the Ruins captures the wonder of a new beginning. "We've started to reach new heights musically," says Drew. "Touring is going to be very exciting, because this band is going to grow even more. We've obviously retained our identity, though - this is the way we play." For Ramsey, the thrill is just beginning. The music, finally, is the message 10,000 Maniacs convey - and it is a triumphant one.
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