10,000 Maniacs: The Wishing Chair (Elektra)

LEST 10,000 Maniacs be mistaken for members of the SoHo establishment, check your map: the sextet’s home base, Jamestown, New York, is roughly the same distance from the Big Apple as Richmond, Virginia. And contrary to what some may think, parts of the vast Empire State are profoundly dissimilar to Mayor Koch’s domain.

So when Natalie Merchant sings of train tracks, sawdust and rusty barrels, it’s not hick chic but the poetic expression of life in a small town, tempered by strongly felt yet subtly stated politics. Steeped in rusticity, 10,000 Maniacs often sounds like a group of emissaries from a much earlier time; its plain-spoken music is an elegant rock descendant of American and British folk traditions.

Following two independently released records, which earned the group much critical enthusiasm (and reasonable comparisons with Fairport Convention), 10,000 Maniacs secured a major-label deal. The group recorded this LP in London with the veteran Joe Boyd, who produced not only Fairport but also Nick Drake and the Incredible String Band. The result is a delightful folk-rock record full of insight, originality and personality. Merchant’s strong, clear voice is a fine lead instrument; the other five members supply understated – but not undistinguished – backing, especially Robert Buck (guitar and mandolin), Dennis Drew (piano, organ and accordion) and Jerry Augustyniak (drums).

The Wishing Chair recycles three songs from 1983’s Secrets of the I Ching, including laments about ‘My Mother the War’ and Hiroshima (‘Grey Victory’). New compositions address subjects ranging from Indian history (‘Among the Americans’) to factory life (‘Maddox Table’) to childhood (‘Can’t Ignore the Train’, ‘Back o’ the Moon’), all set to sturdy melodies and sprightly arrangements.

Blithely ignoring the current direction of pop music, and sidestepping both the rock irrelevance of many unreconstructed folkies and the condescension of some would-be grass roots bands, 10,000 Maniacs proves a deep love and comprehension of both rock and folk and artfully balances the two. The Wishing Chair is, plain and simple, a thought-provoking, toe-tapping joy.

© Ira RobbinsRolling Stone, 27 March 1986

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