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Strong Lps From Eloquent Maniacs, Fiery Men

October 13, 1985|ROBERT HILBURN

The Men They Couldn't Hang.

10,000 Maniacs.

Those names sound like a Halloween double bill at a second-run movie house on Hollywood Boulevard--or maybe the lineup for the next punk show at Olympic Auditorium.

But they are, in fact, the names of exciting new rock bands that have come up with two of the year's most appealing--and, despite the names, relatively mainstream--albums.

Instead of the punk or zany overtones suggested by its name, 10,000 Maniacs is a six-member band from western New York state that mixes the bright, highly emotional instrumental sweep of R.E.M. with the vocals of a singer who sounds as if she served her apprenticeship in an English folk group. The trademarks of the band's new Elektra album, "The Wishing Chair," are eloquence and a winsome, seductive grace.

The Men They Couldn't Hang is a lively country/folk/rock outfit from England that combines the kick-up-your-heels zest of American "cowpunk" groups like Rank and File with the communal, grass-roots tradition of British and Irish pub bands. There's a warm, uplifting spirit to the working-class tales of struggle and desire on its LP, "Night of a Thousand Candles" (on England's Imp label).

Natalie Merchant, the 21-year-old lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs, sighs good-naturedly on the phone when two issues are raised. Yes, she indicated, she has been asked often about the seeming inappropriateness of the band's name, and about the fact that she seems to have an English accent.

"Well, you've got to remember . . . we weren't all that eloquent-- as you put it--when we began (in 1981)," she said. "We had no acoustic instruments then. We were completely electric and doing songs by bands like the Gang of Four and Joy Division.

"Even then, however, the name wasn't entirely fitting. We used it mostly to sensationalize ourselves--to get people to come see us. When people did see us (later), they began assuming that we called ourselves 10,000 Maniacs for the irony involved. At any rate, it was too late to change it."

About the English folk strains in her voice, Merchant added, "A lot of people do assume I'm from England because the people there seem to have a purer sound to their vowels, but it's just that I studied voice for a few years and I was taught to enunciate letters, especially vowels. I don't pinch my vowels the way most people do."

Much like R.E.M. lead singer Michael Stipe, Merchant is an "effects" singer in that she treats her voice as an instrument in the band rather than interpreting lyrics with the careful, aggressive phrasing of a Rickie Lee Jones or Chrissie Hynde.

Unlike Stipe, however, she generally pronounces the words instead of merely slurring them so that they come across chiefly as mood portraits. Even so, there is an abstractness to her writing that forces you to study the lyric sheet to piece together a song's meaning.

Again reminiscent of R.E.M., 10,000 Maniacs makes the elusiveness of its music seem richly enticing and warm rather than arty or pretentious. The key songs in the LP are stamped with both originality and heart, pushing the group to the forefront of the rich cadre of new U.S. rock bands.

The group, which uses considerable folk coloring in its arrangements, touches on a wide range of themes in its album: small-town restlessness in "Can't Ignore the Train," working-class reflections in "Maddox Table," stormy confrontation in "Scorpio Rising" and political satire in "My Mother the War."

"My Mother" was included on the group's first album (released in 1983 on its own Christian Burial label) and attracted considerable attention for 10,000 Maniacs when it was released last year as a single in England.

In the opening lines, the song seems to celebrate the glamour of battle:

My mother the war

She'll raise a shaft

Lift a banner

Toss a rose.

By the end, however, the tone has turned dark:

My mother the war

Well acquainted

With sorrow

With grief.

About the theme, Merchant (who co-wrote the words with Michael Walsh) said, "I've always been intrigued by propaganda songs from the '40s . . . things like 'He's 1-A in the Army and He's A-1 in My Heart.' That was the picture I had in mind for the song. It starts off glorifying war in a way--or at least glorifying going off to war, and then it turns around and shows the brutality."

Merchant and her fellow band members--guitarists Robert Buck and John Lombardo, drummer Jerry Augustyniak, bassist Steve Gustafson and keyboardist Dennis Drew--were drawn together by the new-wave and post-punk music played on the local Jamestown, N.Y., college radio station.

"Except for John, we were all deejays on the station, and that music was our only link with modern culture," Merchant said. "Most of the kids in town were just into the normal stuff you hear on the (commercial) radio, but this other music by bands like the Clash, the Gang of Four and the Cure seemed so exciting, even revolutionary to us. It's what made us want to be in our own band.

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