In My Tribe

In My Tribe

10,000 Maniacs began their career in 1981 as a post-punk-adjacent band led by a 17-year-old Natalie Merchant, with Joy Division’s then-recent song “Love Will Tear Us Apart” as a fixture of their earliest shows. By the time the group released their breakthrough album In My Tribe in 1987, nearly all traces of that aesthetic had been supplanted by an alternative folk-pop aesthetic closely related to that of their frequent tourmates R.E.M. This lush and earthy style suited the earnest intensity of Merchant’s lyrics and flattered her rich contralto voice, making her come across as a protest singer with a touch of musical-theatre flair. Prior to In My Tribe, the band’s music was mainly written by Merchant with guitarist John Lombardo, but his departure in 1986 resulted in her either composing songs on her own or with other members of the Maniacs. Merchant instantly clicked with Robert Buck, whose jangling guitar on the album openers “What’s the Matter Here?” and “Hey Jack Kerouac” made them a natural fit on college radio alongside R.E.M. and The Smiths. “Hey Jack Kerouac,” an uptempo number that’s clearly indebted to The Smiths in style and tone, is a meditation on the Beats at a time when they’d transcended mere personhood to become mythic figures representing an ideal of artistry and freedom. Merchant sings about Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg with reverence towards their work and ambivalence about their rampant egos and self-destructive tendencies, addressing them as though she’s a concerned peer asking difficult questions about what they took from others and what debts they left unpaid. “Don’t Talk,” written with keyboardist Dennis Drew, is a cousin to The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey” with its combination of hazy proto-shoegaze guitar and girl-group melodrama. “My Sister Rose” and “The Painted Desert”— Merchant’s songs with drummer Jerome Augustyniak—have a lush and summery feel, while her solo compositions “Verdi Cries” and “Like the Weather” are so bold and confident that it’s no surprise she’d eventually make the jump to becoming a solo artist.

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