After the fairly straightforward folk rock effort The Wishing Chair, which I enjoy and feel is generally underrated, songwriting guitarist Peter Lombardo departed the band and the production reins were handed over to Peter Asher for In My Tribe, which marked a more mainstream pop approach, with generally excellent results. Taking on such serious topics as child abuse, illiteracy, alcoholism, and even the U.S. Army (“they’re so good at making soldiers but they’re not as good at making men”), the band’s catchy mid-tempo melodies would make songs such as “What’s The Matter Here?,” “Hey Jack Kerouc,” "Cherry Tree," and “Don’t Talk” successful even had they not been married to such memorable lyrics. The band crafts a decidedly literate and moving brand of folk pop, led by the warm, passionate alto of Natalie Merchant; witness Merchant’s gorgeous vocal on the spare piano ballad “Verdi Cries.” The rest of the band, always underrated in the presence of such a commanding frontwoman, displays their versatility on “Like The Weather” and “My Sister Rose,” which feature danceable beats and lighter, upbeat melodies that are carried by Robert Buck’s typically tasty guitar jangle. Theirs may not be the most original, diverse, or exciting sound around, the lyrics can be a bit preachy, and maybe there are a couple of lesser tracks on side two, but the bottom line is that In My Tribe features consistently compelling performances of highly melodic songs that matter. Simply put, In My Tribe, which made the band firm college radio favorites, is the band's best overall album, though they would find more commercial success later on with the also very good (if not quite as good) Our Time In Eden (1992) - the lesser Blind Man's Zoo came first in 1989 - and especially with their popular MTV Unplugged concert album (1993). Note: The band removed their cover of Cat Steven’s “Peace Train” from this album after he supported (though he later denied this) the Ayotollah Khomeini’s “fatwa” threat on the life of author Salman Rushdie, putting their money where their mouths are. Note #2: Unfortunately, Merchant quit 10,000 Maniacs at the peak of their ever-increasing popularity for a solo career that I personally feel has never matched her work with the 10,000 Maniacs. The band surprisingly continued without her, replacing Merchant with Mary Ramsey and re-enlisting Lombardo. Unsurprisingly, this revamped lineup has also failed to match their best work with Natalie Merchant.
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