Pens with ink in them are always a plus.
That's what Mary Ramsey says. The lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs with an obvious knack for understatement usually goes about her everyday business with a couple of nice felt-tip pens at hand and at least a handful of notebooks working at once. She prefers those cardboard-covered loose-leaf jobs with the black and white fuzzies on the front. They remind her of elementary school and simpler times.
Not that singing lead vocals, co-writing songs and lyrics and playing the viola in a largely successful '80s leftover band is simple. Even before the release of the band's latest record, The Earth Pressed Flat (Bar/None), the Maniacs had been touring almost nonstop for about three years. Since the band doesn't have the support of a major label behind it anymore, being out on the road helps. It's just like in the old days, when you'd pay to play. Any substantial monetary success now seems worlds away.
But the players in the Maniacs know this. In its own understated way, the sextet accepts its shift into the less-lucrative world of adult-contemporary Americana from the college-folk circuit underground. And it hasn't affected the way it makes music.
After the departure of lead singer Natalie Merchant for a much-greener-pastured solo career in '93, the band wallowed for a couple of years in its old glory with no new direction. It had scored a couple of campus-radio hits and had released a handful of albums to good critical reception, but without the coffee-house queen, with whom most of the band's young-adult fans identified, the Maniacs faced a difficult task: to be the Maniacs without the Maniac. The band picked up Ramsey, a classically trained viola player and singer, who sings from the roof of her mouth much like her predecessor. Ramsey's also doubling as the band's faceperson. But even with her, the group has still been languishing.
One way for a band like this, which was so dependent on its front woman, to get back into the pop consciousness is by being literally everywhere. This is why since its first release with Ramsey, '97's Love Among the Ruins, the band has performed in Portugal, Brazil and all across the Middle East. Anywhere, in fact, where people have ears.
But while the band itself has gone global, its music has stayed relatively local. The band's first release off Love Among the Ruins, "More Than This," an honest and uninspired cover of the Roxy Music classic, brought some airplay. And the accompanying video, which received much rotation on MTV and which featured the alluring Ramsey -- bare shoulders and all -- in nearly every frame of film, helped re-establish the Maniac name while at the same time establish its new face. Still, no one bought into it.
And those days of possibly generating new fans have long since passed. Not having a major label's checkbook nearby means videos, which can cost an average of about $40,000, have become nonessential. So the Maniacs thought: Why worry about putting our faces on TV when we can simply appear in everyone's backyard in person?
Hence, the touring. And most would pay just to see Ramsey. An established artist, she also brings a built-in fan base. When she was the second half of a band called John and Mary, a folk outfit partially fronted by Maniac guitarist John Lombardo, she toured with the Maniacs and had opened up for the headliner on occasion. The void left by Merchant wasn't really seen as a void since most of the guys in the band knew Ramsey had the potential to assume the lead spot. The whole transition was so natural, so seamless -- because of Ramsey's time with Lombardo and their time below the Maniacs on the marquee -- that the band members would say they hardly griped over Merchant's absence. Not that they didn't notice Ramsey's presence.
Ramsey approaches the concert stage much differently than Merchant or her ex-bandmates. To them, every concert is a gut-wrenching affair. But then again, none of them ever had to train for Carnegie Hall.
"I'm not someone who takes myself so seriously," says Ramsey. "And I think that puts the other guys at ease. From being in such an academic world, it's nice to have a sense of humor about things.
"I guess there was a lot of tension between Natalie and the band. Between how she approached the stage and how they were. Which is all understandable. But I just have a different perspective."
The "guys" in the band are all a little older than Ramsey. That they're not willing to stretch their sounds a little bit worries the new main Maniac some. As she aspires to widen Maniac songs, improvise a little and rework old tunes into contemporary numbers, bass player Steve Gustafson, drummer Jerome Augustyniak, guitar players Lombardo and Robert Buck, and keyboard player Dennis Drew want to stick to the book. Note for note is typically how it goes live.
Since the band's first release, Secrets of the I-Ching, in '83, the Maniac sound has stayed relatively the same. Always dependent on flowery melodies, predictable beats and ethereal content, a typical Maniac song will never touch upon the avant-garde. Radio-friendliness seems to emanate from every song, which usually fails to test the four-minute pop song limit.
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."
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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.