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9,999 Maniacs

Though 10,000 Maniacs is still around, its pop appeal has dwindled a bit.

But in all the ways the members of the Maniacs acquiesce to the Pop Standard, they manage to do it capably. Following the strict, nearly unbendable recipe for pop song success takes some skill. As any popular artist will agree, writing a good pop hook isn't easy. That the Maniacs can do it so competently points to the band's reaffirmed sense of direction and old-school mentality. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Most of the songs on Earth revolve around a lo-fi ambiance. Recorded in and around Jamestown, New York, the band's hometown, the album reflects in producer Armand John Petri's simple way its organic surroundings. A house, local stages, traditional studios and an abandoned pharmacy are some of the places where the band was taped for the record. The way Ramsey's melancholy viola moans and yawns in certain phrases can't be duplicated by any mixer's tricks. Its natural sound is testament to the easy atmosphere in which it was played. Same for Buck's guitar work, bright and sometimes airy, which Ramsey likens to creme brulee. "[His playing] has this really sweet surface. It's like fragile glass."

The metaphor is appropriate, but also indicative of Ramsey's poetic personality. Like those of most writers, Ramsey's lyrics are partly informed by things she reads: encyclopedias, the dictionary (which she says she reads for leisure), mystery novels, romantic poetry and, currently, a friend's Ph.D. thesis on H.P. Lovecraft. Musically, she gleans inspiration from Leonard Cohen, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Edith Piaf, Massive Attack and others.

This romance has a way of attracting a certain audience. Ramsey describes the average Maniac fan as "someone who has an escapist attitude about music, that it's something that can transport you."

In a word: The average Maniac fan is a bohemian. Which is precisely the word Ramsey uses to understate her perception of the band. It's hard-working, honest to the art and, well, not that wealthy. "That capacity, though, keeps you grounded," she says. "It's just that lifestyle. But as you get older it's not poverty. It's a state of mind."

10,000 Maniacs performs Friday, May 28, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak. Call (713)862-7580 for more information.

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