Thursday, October 2, 2008

Gun Shy - 10,000 Maniacs

In the mid 1980s, 10,000 Maniacs became poster children of the college rock scene. Tuneful, (like R.E.M.)? Check. Furtive, painfully shy lead singer (like Morrissey)? Check. Quirky sound (like just about anyone out there at the time)? Check. And the clincher that set them apart from other college rock bands: topical, sometimes political lyrics that showed these guys had brains in their heads and weren't afraid to show it.

Sometimes the topics they chose seemed to suffer at the hands of the music, though. It's hard to take a song seriously about the personal trials of illiteracy ("Cherry Tree") while jingle bells are ringing in your ears the entire time. Or a song detailing the ravages of depression ("Like the Weather") that's as jaunty and perky as anything you've heard on Top 40 radio. Then again, maybe that was the get the bitter message across with as much sweet, attractive sheen as possible.

But this pop gem, arguably the best on the Maniacs' best record, In My Tribe, does away with the frippery and the fake happiness, and condenses its anti-military sentiment into a tight, tuneful nugget. The drumming is in a strict 4/4 march, quick and efficient. The guitar arpeggios are light and never obstruct Natalie Merchant's quiet, concise monologue. Even those signature organs with some of the strangest reverb/vibrato in rock history are downplayed.

Perhaps more important, the song is based in real life, and feels like it. Natalie Merchant wrote the song, addressing her younger brother as he came back from boot camp. In other songs, her disapproval of lifestyle choices (child abuse, alcoholism) maintains a haughty distance from the perpetrator. Not here. Her familial connection forces her to make concessions-however small and fleeting-and show her humanity. ("I don't mean to spoil your homecoming, but baby brother? You should expect me to.") The intimate nature of this song brings the message beyond an anti-war rant and into the world of what used to be childish sibling rivalry, now grown up and much more serious.