10,000 Maniacs,
Twice Told Tales
(Cleopatra, 2015)

Most of the band's lingering pop audience assumed 10,000 Maniacs simply bit the big one when Natalie Merchant left, 22 years ago. They didn't. Sure, the band has kept a lower profile since then, but they've soldiered on, going their own way, making their music their way.

Twice Told Tales is the latest example of what they've been up to. An album of traditional songs, the disc explores the folkier side of the band, bringing us everything from an a cappella ballad to full-band treatment of old folk chestnuts, all dressed up in new clothes.

The album opens with a solo viola cut by Merchant replacement and current vocalist, Mary Ramsey, called "Lady Mary Ramsay 1." ("Lady Mary Ramsay ll" closes the CD.) She says she googled her name once and found these two tunes, so she learned them and the band used them to bookend this set of tunes. The tune, beautifully played, highlights what is to come.

The instrumental is followed by Ramsey's a cappella rendition of Yeats' "Song of the Wandering Aengus." Her version follows the Judy Collins interpretation carefully, but her vocal interpretation brings June Tabor to mind.

With the third cut, "She Moved Through the Fair," the full band joins in. This lineup of the band includes original members Jerome Augustniak, Dennis Drew and Steven Gustafson, along with replacement Maniac Jeffrey Erickson and, of course, Ramsey. Their approach to the classic traditional songs like "Dark Eyed Sailor," "Greenwood Sidey," "Carrickfergus," "Wild Mountain Thyme" and "Marie's Wedding" bring Fairport Convention to mind, but 10,000 Maniacs don't have the rock undercurrent that Fairport brings to its arrangements. The fact is that the Maniacs are too polite; they treat the material too reverently, showing a little too much respect.

What you have to understand, though, is that the previous couple of sentences sound like complaints. They aren't. They are observations. Twice Told Tales is a very good album that accomplishes exactly what the Maniacs appear to have set out to do. It's just that what they evidently wanted to do was to come down on the side of the older and purer folk music, rather than the more modern, rock-influenced folk.

Can't complain about that.

music review by
Michael Scott Cain

12 December 2015

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