Tension makes a tangle

It was wise of 10,000 Manaics to subtitle Campfire Songs as “The Popular, Obscure and Unknown Recordings”.

For such retrospectives, “greatest hits” or “best of” are the usual prefixes, and what subjective ones they are Popularity, on the other hand, can at least be gauged on some empirical level.

The fact In My Tribe, perhaps the Maniacs’ most popular album, dominates the program of Campfire Songs’ first disc bears the subtitle out. While In My Tribe deserved the success it garnered back in 1987, it doesn’t possess quite the charm of 1985’s The Wishing Chair, represented by one track on this collection.

But like I said — subjective.

John Lombardo was the group’s main songwriting on The Wishing Chair, and despite Joe Boyd’s reportedly lassez-faire production, the album contained some of the Maniacs’ best material.

It’s interesting to note, then, how the band opted to include earlier versions of The Wishing Chair’s strongest songs — “Tension Makes a Tangle” and “My Mother the War”.

Campfire Songs is a fascinating document of a band’s rise to fame. Before they became alt-rock radio mainstays, 10,000 Maniacs were quite quirky.

Thematically, the earliest tracks were far more diverse — the machinations of a mother working to support a war effort on “My Mother the War”, the impact of science on belief in “Planned Obsolence”, even the psychological effects of cloudy weather on “Like the Weather”.

In My Tribe marked a transition for the band, between its bright, folk-rock sound and singer Natalie Merchant’s darker, socially conscious themes. That tension is reflected on the album’s most memorable tracks — “What’s the Matter Here?”, “Don’t Talk”.

The last half of Campfire Songs’ popular recordings find the Maniacs giving into the demands of fame. Merchant became the focal point of the group, and her direction ultimately led the band’s creative focus astray. The Tower of Power horns on “Candy Everybody Wants” was as low as it could go.

The obscure and unknown recordings that make up Campfire Songs second disc is something of a de facto covers album.

Most of the disc contains cover songs that were released as b-sides to the band’s singles. “Wildwood Flower” shows a country sound the Maniacs’ could have done well to feature more often. A live performance of “To Sir With Love”, featuring Michael Stipe, is just plain messy.

(Merchant’s performance of the Smiths’ “Everyday is Like Sunday” is said tt have put Morrissey in such a tift, he wrote a song to rebuke her.)

While the post-In My Tribe songs may be somewhat painful to listen to — it’s amazing just how lifeless the band’s mainstream work became — Campfire Songs possesses enough moments to remind listeners what made the Maniacs special in the first place.

The post-Elektra years are not documented on this collection, but by then, both Merchant and the Maniacs had moved in directions different from the one they charted together.

It’s still a suitable document.