10,000 Maniacs
Love Among The Ruins

I pop the disc into the CD player and start nodding. The first song, "Rainy Day" is a catchy, drum-driven opener; an appropriately upbeat return for 10,000 Maniacs. Then comes the title track, a "la-la-la" chirpy song (helped out by co-writer Jules Shear). Things seem to be moving in a decidedly positive direction. But by the end of the sixth song, I'm yawning — I reach to eject the disc in favor of something a little more interesting. Before my finger hits the button, I'm dragged back to a smile by one of the best Maniacs offerings ever — their current single, a cover of Roxy Music's "More Than This." There is a glimmer of hope among the ruins of the Maniac tribe.

It's been four years since the last Maniacs album with singer Natalie Merchant (who has moved on to put out two solo discs of her own). At long last, the rest of the Maniacs — aided and abetted by two new/not-so-new additions — have staged their return, sans Merchant. A former sidewoman — background singer/violist Mary Ramsey —has stepped up to the mic as lead singer, and John Lombardo (a founding member of the Maniacs who left the band to form John & Mary with Ramsey in the '80s) is back on board.

The results are mixed. Ramsey's vocals are a fine substitute for Merchant, offering a similar range and soothing quality. And musically, this does sound like the Maniacs...but overall, this album comes up a bit anemic — the Maniacs on valium. Probably the biggest problem is that all of these songs are very nice. Gentle. Easy. Lulling. While the Maniacs have in the past been about the conflict of Merchant's dark, often depressing lyrics and the band's upbeat music, there is very little conflict —lyrically or otherwise —going on in Love Among The Ruins. Gone are the horn punches that the last couple Maniacs releases were peppered with. And there are no story songs on the order of "Eat For Two" or "What's The Matter Here?" to cause you to sit up and listen harder. There aren't any really bad songs here, there just aren't that many really good ones, either. Ultimately, that makes this a good background album, but nothing to listen to with any strong attention.



The annual New Music Festival hits Chicago this weekend, July 25 and 26. This is a great opportunity for musicians to attend sessions to learn how to further their careers during the day, and for music fans to check out the many bands playing showcase sessions at downtown clubs at night...Want to make a Clash fan nauseous? Play Dwight Yoakam's new album, Under The Covers. Yoakam turns The Clash's "Train In Vain" into a pickin' 'n' grinnin' country song. but that's not the only pop song Yoakam redesigns. The Kinks' "Tired of Waiting For You" turns into a swing country orchestra number (not unlike Pat Boone's recent work), and The Beatles' "Things We Said Today" gets a harder drum and guitar backbone than the original. Also revisited (in a countrified way) are The Rolling Stones' "The Last Time," Jimmy Webb's standard "Wichita Lineman" and Sonny Bono's "Baby Don't Go" here done as a duet with Sheryl Crow. It's a brave outing, if occasionally misguided...The soundtrack to one of the summer's most successful movies is out, and unfortunately, doesn't yield the gold that it's celluloid sister does. Men In Black The Album offers a couple of lackluster raps from the film's star Will Smith, and a fun outing from De La Soul. But the best offerings here are instrumental: Danny Elfman's main and closing movie themes close the disc, and Buckshot LeFonque's "Some Cow Fonque (More Tea, Vicar)" is a horn-hopping guitar-anchored funk deluge that begs for dancefloor action. The other tracks? Snoop Doggy Dogg, Ginuwine, Alicia Keys, The Roots, Emoja, A Tribe Called Quest and others turn in low key, easy listening R&B offerings...If you thought the only band to ever come out of Iceland was The Sugarcubes (and via them, Bjork), well, think again. Iceland's Gus Gus brings its trance-dance electronic sound to Chicago's Metro on July 29. The nine-piece band is touring for its trip-hop CD Polydistortion on 4AD records. The disc is at its best when the vocal mic is turned off and the ambient techno grooves rule the speakers.