I know I’m in the minority when I say one of 10,000 Maniacs’ best albums is Love Among the Ruins.
Hell, I’d rank it No. 3 behind The Wishing Chair (#1) and In My Tribe (#2).
Love Among the Ruins was the first album the Maniacs recorded after Natalie Merchant left. Former member John Lombardo re-joined the group and brought singer Mary Ramsey along with him.
The pair, calling themselves John and Mary, had already recorded two albums for Rykodisc while 10,000 Maniacs became darlings of early 90s alt-rock radio. It was easy to mistake the duo for 10,000 Maniacs, especially since Maniacs drummer Jerome Augustinyak and guitarist Rob Buck played on their albums.
However much charisma Merchant possessed, Ramsey was a better fit for the Maniacs’ folk-rock sound, and her sweeter voice rooted the band more to its folk influences than Merchant’s political conscience.
But the death of Buck in 2000 found the two groups separated again — John and Mary going off on their own, with the rest of the Maniacs left to fill Buck’s and Merchant’s shoes.
The Pinwheel Galaxy is John and Mary’s third album, and its first without an overt influence by their once and future compatriots. (Well, not quite — Augustinyak still provides the drumming.)
And they still sound like 10,000 Manaics — early 10,000 Maniacs, that is.
Lombardo introduced Fairport Convention to his former bandmates, and its that influence that still informs his writing. If anything, he’s probably stuck closer to that original sound that his former band in Merchant’s latter days.
Although Buck was a wonderful guitarist, his participation on John and Mary’s earlier albums was a bit distracting. His presence, oddly enough, is missed on The Pinwheel Galaxy, but at the same time, it’s nice to hear John and Mary on their own terms.
Ramsey, in fact, flies solo as a songwriter on three tracks, two of which happen to be most anamolous on the album — the slightly psychedelic “Gaze” and the jazzy instrumental “5 Days in a Balloon”.
John and Mary give a nicely understated interpretation to the traditional “Lady Margaret and Street William”, while “Halo of Stars” and “Vacant Chair” ventures more into the folk half of the duo’s folk-rock sound.
The rest of the album is pretty much more of the same music the pair were producing a decade ago, but Ramsey’s light voice is magnetic enough on its own.
Still, there’s something charmingly dated about The Pinwheel Galaxy, despite attempts at coating the songs in a patina of reverb. No one makes music this unassuming and honest, and it’s been a decade since doing so was considered cool.