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30 Years Ago: 10,000 Maniacs’ Give Us Their First Masterpiece, ‘In My Tribe’

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In a music landscape dominated by hair metal and ultra-produced pop, the mid-’80s mainstream had little patience for young bands that combined an undeniable realness, social commentary, and smart-yet-accessible melodies. But college radio had long been in on groups that had all those things, and who starting in 1987, would bloom hugely into the larger American musical consciousness.

By that year, 10,000 Maniacs — formed in western New York state in the early days of MTV and soon led by young lyricist Natalie Merchant — had been honing their craft for longer than most rock bands’ entire careers. With two albums under their belts, but not yet any love on the U.S. charts, the group had nevertheless begun to amass an audience hungry for their honest, intelligent tunes.

When In My Tribe landed on July 27, 1987, Merchant’s immediately distinctive alto, frankness and agility with language carried along by the music’s freshness broke through across rock radio, earning 10,000 Maniacs its place at the forefront of the sea change in modern rock alongside their friends and musical peers R.E.M. whose own landmark 1987 album Document would come just a month later.

I get a shiver in my bones just thinking about the weather,” intones Merchant on the melancholic single “Like the Weather,” the song that would begin to catapult In My Tribe up the charts. Why did it connect? This female perspective wasn’t kittenish, over-sexed or artificially innocent; Merchant’s unique burr was the voice of a grown woman, and one unafraid to write about a depression that wouldn’t let its protagonist out of bed.

If In My Tribe’s production work by Peter Asher, a veteran of the British Invation-era pop duo Peter and Gordon who also helmed hit albums for James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, put an emphasis on Merchant and guitarist Robert Buck’s prowess with melody as well as ensuring that Merchant’s vocal would surf atop Dennis Drew (keyboards), Steve Gustafson (bass) and Jerry Augustyniak’s (drums) organic, often jangling musicality, it was no mistake. The band’s recent lineup change, with guitarist John Lombardo’s departure, and the recording setting of Los Angeles, served to further distinguish In My Tribe from their previous efforts.

“Honesty is what we owe to our audiences,” a 24-year-old Merchant would confide to R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe in the pages of Musician magazine in January 1988, just as Tribe was fully connecting with fans. And honesty is what they got.

After “Weather” rose to No. 68 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, along came album opener, “What’s the Matter Here?” which displayed Merchant’s evocative phrasing at its most potent, singing in the voice of someone debating on what to do about a neighbor’s child abuse. It would ultimately climb all the way to No. 9 on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart and cement the band’s place as one of the leading lights of the nascent alternative scene.

That the album’s duet with Stipe, “A Campfire Song,” was just an added bonus was a testament to the overall power of the band themselves. Tribe would go on to double-platinum status before the ’80s were over.

Blind Man’s Zoo, released in 1989, would later jump all the way to No. 13 on the Billboard album chart. But in retrospect it was In My Tribe that contributed to truly paving the way for a new sound that would help define mindful rock at the turn of the ’90s.

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