Happy 30th Anniversary to 10,000 Maniacs’ third studio album In My Tribe, originally released July 7, 1987.
"There is a darker side to the band that never had been completely, thoroughly shown," Natalie Merchant explained to the Los Angeles Times back in the summer of 1989, a few months after the release of 10,000 Maniacs’ fourth studio album Blind Man’s Zoo. "It was something that had to be in a way exorcised and then we could go on to something else. On In My Tribe, there was that separation of lyrics going in one direction and the music going in another direction, one being very jovial and the other one being in some points very violent, other points very melancholy.”
Indeed, it is this paradox of the band’s buoyant melodies juxtaposed with their versatile vocalist’s incisive, often sobering words delivered in her reassuring, maternal-like tone that has always made In My Tribe such an enthralling listening experience. And it this duality that also largely explains why the album earned the Jamestown, NY ensemble of Merchant, Robert Buck (guitar), Steve Gustafson (bass guitar), Jerome Augustyniak (drums), and Dennis Drew (keyboards) the broader fanbase and critical accolades that had eluded them on their previous LPs, the self-released Secrets of the I Ching (1983) and their Elektra Records debut The Wishing Chair (1985).
After the underwhelming commercial reception but promising critical attention The Wishing Chair garnered, the Elektra brass doubled down on their investment in the band, hiring the accomplished producer Peter Asher (James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt) to steer the band’s songs in a more polished, radio-friendly direction. Though the group was initially apprehensive about Asher’s influence and recommendations in the studio, they ultimately acquiesced to his vision and created their breakthrough album in the form of In My Tribe. "The album gave us a great chance to really coalesce as a band," Drew admitted to Rolling Stone in 1989. "At that point we had to save our career and make a good record. We fucking buckled up, tightened our belt and did it."
Elektra’s decision to release the band’s cover of Cat Stevens’ 1971 staple “Peace Train” as In My Tribe’s first official single suggested that while the label had high expectations for the album, they wanted to tread carefully by teasing audiences with something more established and familiar. Included on original pressings of the LP, “Peace Train” was removed from subsequent editions due to controversial remarks Stevens (by then known as Yusuf Islam) made in reference to—and as some interpreted it, in support of—the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa calling for the murder of the celebrated author Salman Rushdie following the 1988 release of his novel The Satanic Verses, which some Muslims decried as blasphemous against Islam.
While the pleasant yet perhaps too familiar “Peace Train” failed to kickstart meaningful sales for the album, the chart success of the two singles that followed gave the record the boost it needed. Driven along by whimsical guitarwork that belies the song’s subject matter, “Like the Weather” is Merchant’s ode to seasonal affective disorder induced lethargy, made crystal clear in the opening verse: “The color of the sky as far as I can see is coal gray / Lift my head from the pillow and then fall again / With a shiver in my bones just thinking about the weather / A quiver in my lips as if I might cry.”
With Buck’s jangly, shoegaze-like guitar sheen, the emotionally jarring third single “What’s the Matter Here?” finds Merchant singing from the perspective of a woman observing her neighbors abusing their child and delicately outlining the warranted guilt-trip in lines like, “Answer me and take your time / What could be the awful crime / He could do at so young an age? / If I'm the only witness to your madness / Offer me some words to balance out / What I see and what I hear / All these cold and rude things that you do / I suppose you do because he belongs to you / Instead of love and the feel of warmth / You've given him these cuts and sores / That won't heal with time or age.”
Other standout songs abound, and collectively reinforce the human empathy and generosity of spirit that pervade the entire album. The soaring “Don’t Talk” documents a woman’s attempts to temper her alcoholic lover’s verbosity and disingenuousness when he’s under the spell of drink (“Tilt that bottle in the air / Tossing back more than your share / You talk talk talk about it / You talk as if you care”). “City of Angels” laments the plight of the homeless in Los Angeles, while “Cherry Tree” examines illiteracy. The plaintive “Gun Shy” explores the dichotomy of life inside and outside of the military (“I don't mean to argue / They've made a decent boy of you / I don't mean to spoil your homecoming my baby brother Jude / And I don't mean to hurt you by saying this again / They're so good at making soldiers / But they're not so good / At making men”).
“Hey Jack Kerouac” is a shining tribute to the mystique of the revered novelist, poet and “hip flask slinging madman” who helped shape the Beat Generation along with Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, both of whom are also namechecked in the song. The Michael Stipe assisted “A Campfire Song” condemns greed and materialism gone awry, while “My Sister Rose” finds Merchant scrutinizing the socially-mandated tradition of marriage and the ceremonial pomp of weddings. The album concludes with “Verdi Cries,” her stripped-down, piano and strings imbued recollection of a trip enriched by her fellow hotel guest’s love of the 19th century Italian opera composer Giuseppe Verdi.
In the ensuing six years after In My Tribe’s release, 10,000 Maniacs released Blind Man’s Zoo (1989), Our Time in Eden (1992) and MTV Unplugged (1993)—all wonderful recordings in their own right. However, Merchant left the group shortly after their Unplugged set was recorded to pursue what would soon become a fruitful solo career, confiding to Entertainment Weekly in 1995 that she “didn’t want to have to consult with all these other people” and “didn’t want art by committee anymore.” In the aftermath of Merchant’s departure, she recorded her divine solo debut Tigerlily (1995), while the band added vocalist Mary Ramsey to fill the void and recorded 1997’s Love Among the Ruins.
Though all good things invariably come to an end, as they say, 10,000 Maniacs’ 12-year run of making art by committee with Merchant in the fold yielded some of the finest recordings of the era. As gloriously manifest across In My Tribe, their songs possess a timeless quality and grace that keep many of us revisiting them in our imaginations and through our speakers or headphones, time and time again.