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* * * * Great Balls of Fire * * * Good Vibrations * * Maybe Baby * Running on Empty : : 10,000 MANIACS = ONE INSPIRED BAND

July 26, 1987|ROBERT HILBURN

* * * "IN MY TRIBE." 10,000 Maniacs. Elektra.

If Suzanne Vega's best work aims for a Joni Mitchell-like poetic eloquence and independent vision, Natalie Merchant explores matters of conscience and heart with even more of an individual stamp. Coincidentally, Merchant and Vega both have songs about child abuse, though the message and tone of "What's the Matter Here?" is far from a replay of Vega's surprise Top 40 hit, "Luka."

On its stirring first Elektra album in 1985, Merchant and her mates in this severely misnamed band from western New York (these Maniacs are not punks) mixed the glorious emotional instrumental sweep of R.E.M. with its own enchanting mixture of English folk and Band-flavored rock instincts. Merchant's lyrics looked at contemporary morals and attitudes from a distinctive, personal perspective.

"In My Tribe" benefits from new producer Peter Asher's crisper production, which gives the band a more forceful and accessible sound and pushes Merchant's vocals forward so that she, clearly, is the focus. However, the Maniacs seem stuck in the musical shadow of their former guitarist, John Lombardi, employing variations on his melodies rather than asserting any new or compelling identity. Nothing here races with the energy and resolve of 1985's "Scorpio Rising" or "My Mother the War."

Yet the advances in Merchant's singing and lyrics--both are more intimate and assured--help offset the problems of over-familiarity. Her phrasing has an individuality that gives the songs a veil of mystery, and while her more concrete approach to her lyrics make her themes more easily absorbed, the songs--and ideas--are no less intriguing.

In lesser hands, "What's the Matter Here?" and "Gun Shy" could have been predictable reflections on child abuse and the military Establishment, respectively. But Merchant deals with both issues on a personal level, questioning her own refusal to become "involved" in preventing the abuse, and challenging her brother's soldier-boy mentality.

Merchant is not obsessed with big themes. She is often most endearing on such songs of innocence and wonder as "Cherry Tree" and "Verdi Cries." The only time she and the band seem routine is on the careless and commercially compromising remake of Cat Stevens' 1971 hit "Peace Train." Elsewhere, Merchant is truly inspired, making music that is as thoughtful as Mitchell's and as frisky and free as Laura Nyro's.

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