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Pop Review : The Maniacs Have An Air Of Mystery

December 09, 1985|ROBERT HILBURN | Times Pop Music Critic

It was only fitting when 10,000 Maniacs' lead singer Natalie Merchant returned to the edge of the stage after her concert Friday night at the Lingerie. She must have realized long ago that people would have questions about just what she and the band are doing.

Some groups excite you the first time around; others bore you. The Maniacs are one of the few who leave you standing around trying to sort out your feelings.

This was a taste-maker crowd Friday; lots of critics and scene regulars who like to make up their minds fast. However, this exciting new six-member group, whose graceful music is far from the punk rage implied by its name, defies easy analysis.

Before seeing the band, you knew from the group's two albums that its themes are more suggested than defined. A lyric sheet with the latest LP keeps you from being totally in the dark about the words, but the generally abstract images don't take full shape until you hear them sung.

The tone of Merchant's voice--angry, insistent on "Scorpio Rising," pastoral on "Lily Dale"--holds the key to these engaging mood portraits about finding lasting values and friendships in this fast-moving age of planned obsolescence and easy corruption.

The band places considerable emphasis on tradition, both in Merchant's folk-accented vocal style and in the use of keyboards, guitar, mandolin and (for one number) accordion in the timeless Fairport Convention/Band-like arrangements.

On stage, the rest of the Maniacs demonstrated quickly that it wasn't just Merchant's show. The musicians--especially guitarist Robert Buck--played with more imagination and force than they did on their Elektra album. There was the ensemble sense of The Band, where each musician injected character without disrupting the overall color of the music.

However, the album didn't prepare you for Merchant's mysterious, yet riveting--and, to some, controversial--stage manner. On stage, Merchant walks a thin line between studied eccentricity and a rare display of total emotional absorption.

Understated at the start, she gradually displayed hints of more aggressive behavior--furious spins here, trance-like expressions there, breaking away from the band's songs for lines of old country or pop songs, showing the audience old photos, then gazing at them while singing--until her performance became as intriguing as the music.

Not everyone liked it. "Too studied," one critic friend declared two-thirds of the way through the set. "I don't believe a minute of it."

Merchant does have attitude , but that's nothing unusual in rock. Everyone from Presley to Bowie, the Sex Pistols to Laurie Anderson were "studied." The question is whether the stance is just a cheap end in itself. With the best performers, attitude adds information and power by expanding the artist's natural musical vision.

At this point, the Maniacs' vision is more scattered than complete, but the vision appears strong, even heartfelt--and Merchant's manner is a striking extension of it. Despite an often graceful, even delicate musical design, the Maniacs examine meaningful issues (both psychological and social) with richness and depth.

Merchant, too, appears on stage to be someone with enough independence and strength to avoid succumbing to self-caricature. But only time will tell us. For now, the good news is that rock has a valuable new attraction.

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