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The Wishing Chair is the first major studio album by 10,000 Maniacs and was released in 1985. This is not as accomplished as their later work and the production leaves something to be desired but it's just about worth a look if you are a fan and retrospectively working your way through these. It's apparent straight away that the sound on this album is more lightweight and poppier than the later ones and on the first song - Can't Ignore the Train - Natalie Merchant sounds more skitterish than she does on the more recognisable albums that would follow. This song whirls along in jingle jangle indie fashion but struggles to settle on a chorus or hook that lodges in the memory and makes you remember the song afterwards. The guitars are rather whimsical and unambitious as Merchant flails away. I like some of her phrasing though and use of certain words. It's a decent enough start but sounds more like album filler fare than 10,000 Maniacs at their best. Scorpio Rising is better and a decent enough pop song with a catchy guitar intro. Natalie Merchant's establishes a chant like mantra and although both her voice and the song sound heavier than the better known albums that were to follow she does lighten the mood with a nice chorus. This is more breezy jingle jangle indie pop in the vein of the first song but more immediate on the whole and so consequently it works much better. Just As The Tide Was A Flowing goes very Oirish with fiddles and folky inflections that come off as a bit forced. Natalie Merchant changes her vocal style here after the first two songs and actually sounds very much like Kirsty MacColl.
This is not really my favourite song here to be honest. If you walked into a pub and heard this booming out you'd probably exit a few minutes later just to get some peace and quiet. The lyrics are rather vague too in a folk genre way. A fair maiden with red cheeks. The tide flows in and out. Lilydale is better and not a million miles away from The Smiths' Cemetery Gates. The narrator draws on a visit to the cemetary and the imagery and charm of the vocal makes this song (which like everything we've heard so far is very up-tempo) a good one. Back O' The Moon is pleasant enough too with a shouted chorus and the vocal almost doubling back on itself and creating a wall of sound. It's a poppy folk song with a nice chorus and with a generally agreeable and hooky aura that draws the listener in. Very Natalie Merchant lyrics too. "Tonight upon the mock brine of a Luna Sea, far off we sail on to Back O' The Moon." Maddox Table is ok but it does illustrate a problem that this album already has. These songs are beginning to all sound the same. Robert Buck's jingle jangle guitar work needs some variety and Natalie Merchant sounds very one-note so far and has approached practically all the songs in the same fashion. I don't think the production on this album is the best in the world to be honest. It sounds slightly tinny and sometimes you can't quite pick up what Natalie Merchant is saying.
When one thinks of how powerful and distinctive her voice is on the later albums you can only presume that the cluttered production on The Wishing Chair did the record no favours. Like the first album produced by The Smiths, you can't help feeling that these songs were not done full justice by the studio sessions. The Colonial Wing has a much grungier lower-slung sound with more bass and Natalie Merchant seems to go a bith goth here with a vaguely wailing vocal performance. The change of gear is welcome although the song isn't brilliant. This one is all about the treasures looted during the colonial era that now sit in Western museums. Grey Victory is a chirpy waltzing pop song with lyrics about the bomb. "The undersides of fallen metal trusses, Evil debris of human bodies, Each window's glass shards pelted, Secure confines, Brittle collapse." This one doesn't work terribly well and although vaguely reminiscent of the playful Smiths song Ask (which also made reference to the atomic shadow) the music goes somewhat beepy and homemade to the point where it sounded like John Shuttleworth for a minute or so. Among The Americans is a story about immigrants in the early days of the Old West. Or something. The Americana imagery is nice anyway and I like the music and vocal here. A somewhat languid poppy song with a relaxed and dexterous vocal performance. Everyone's A Puzzle Lover has more of an acoustic sound and Natalie Merchant sounds more folky again but it's still another song that inhabits the pace and atmosphere of much of the album and so consequently can't help but feel a little samey.
The lyrics here seem fairly on the nose. Life isn't fair and some people get left on the scrapheap. I quite like this song but it does suffer from sounding too much like what has come before. It's like someone giving you the same dinner every day. It might be something you like but you'll get bored of it in the end. Cotton Valley is more of the same although Natalie Merchant's vocal is quite interesting. It's either deliberately kooky or got lost in the production. She seems to reach for lines and alter her pitch much more than on most of the other songs. Daktari goes very world music with what sounds like those tin drums that West Indian fans take to the cricket. Not really my cup of tea and I lost interest in this one fairly quickly. Much better is My Mother The War which, lyrically, begins in amusing almost Smiths type fashion with a picture of suburban domesticity and nosey neighbours but becomes darker as we realise that someone has lost a relative to a war. The music and vocal by Merchant is much more in sync here and one could easily imagine this as a single playing on the radio. Tension Makes A Tangle is likeable little song that has more of a British sound. Very melodic and whimsical. It has a singalong style and while rather lightweight it is enjoyable as far as it goes. A folky end that flirts with country and western but backs away from the precipice and instead goes for more of a waltzing circus sound. Not a bad way to end.
The Wishing Chair is not an album that will win 10,000 Maniacs any new retrospective converts and is probably one for curious fans only. Some of the songs are very good but ultimately the lack of variety in the music left much of this sounding rather samey to me in the end.