Best-of for leading lights of the '80s US college rock circuit

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The Nat Pack
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Hard as it might be to believe, there was a time in the ’80s when 10,000 Maniacs were neck and neck with R.E.M. as the American band most likely to outgrow their college-rock constituency and pole vault their way to mainstream glory. By the time Stipe & Co were reaching both dizzying creative and commercial peaks with 1992’s Automatic For The People, the Maniacs had already lost the plot and effectively perished in the choppy waters of their own hick earnestness and cloying political correctness.

They always lacked the innate cool and innovation of R.E.M., and never quite lived down their reputation as post-punk folkies in cheesecloth and Jesus sandals, a kind of new wave Fairport Convention for people with clean pants and bad jumpers. Though, as parts of this two-CD set serve to remind, they deserve to be remembered as something more than a dry run for Natalie Merchant’s largely underwhelming solo career.

Thirty-one tracks in all, wisely confining themselves to the 12-year period with Merchant at the helm, mercifully omitting the dreary stuff the remaining Maniacs churned out following her mid-’90s departure. Three selections from their pre-Elektra period reveal them in all their endearing, ramshackle oddness. Gang Of Four meets rustic reggae, if you will, on “Planned Obsolescence”. Slap-happy suburban punk rock on “My Mother The War”.

There’s a measly single cut (“Scorpio Rising”) from The Wishing Chair, their 1985 Elektra debut, but that’s more than compensated for with five tracks from 1987’s In My Tribe. Listening now to “Hey Jack Kerouac” and “Don’t Talk”, you’re taken back to a time when rock music was in its most fallow period since the early’60s, and the Maniacs’ effervescent folk-pop shone like a brand new shilling up a chimney sweep’s arse.

By the time of ’89’s Blind Man’s Zoo, Merchant’s quavering vocal still recalled a sanguine Stevie Nicks or a neutered Chrissie Hynde, but she’d already begun a headlong descent into bleeding-heart liberalism while her band were turning into white-bread MORists.

The second CD of obscure and unknown recordings offers a bewildering tour through sublime highlights and risible nadirs. The former, represented by a sparkling demo of “Can’t Ignore The Train” and a simply adorable version of Iris DeMent’s “Let The Mystery Be”, contrasts with shockingly bad takes on Bowie’s “Starman” and Jackson Browne’s “These Days”. There’s also a plodding desecration of Morrissey’s “Everyday Is Like Sunday” which might just be the most laughably unfunny cover version this young turk of a reviewer has ever had the misfortune to endure.