10,000 Maniacs

Campfire Songs: The Popular, Obscure & Unknown Recordings (Elektra/Asylum)

At age 14, nothing stirred us the way 10,000 Maniacs did -- the righteousness of their songs, the style and alto of Natalie Merchant, were like a cool senior girl in funky tights and vintage clothes. Listening to their two-CD boxed set, all we can say is: What were we thinking? Songs about child abuse, puppet dictators, teen pregnancy, and Jack Kerouac -- it's like reading a series of smart, painfully earnest college essays, full of 50-cent words and casual references to opera.

In the '80s, Merchant was a kind of patron saint to pretentious girls in English Honors, who chose 10,000 Maniacs over Color Me Badd. Decades later, the band's weaknesses pop out: the way the lyrics' sanctimony rarely matches the adult-contemporary music, as well as Merchant's tendency to go flat and to overreach the limitations of her still lovely and distinctive voice.

Which isn't to say that there aren't some classics here: "Verdi Cries," "Candy Everybody Wants," and "These Are Days" sent us to the CD player to press repeat. But, of course, the only compelling reason to buy the collection is the second disc, "The Obscure and Unknown Recordings," which offers very little. Early demos are almost unlistenable, and covers of Lulu's "To Sir With Love" and Nico's "These Days" are merely pleasant curiosities. The strongest cut is "Let the Mystery Be," a duet with David Byrne from the band's 1993 MTV Unplugged disc, a simple song that provides the perfect counterpoint to Merchant's overwrought hippie-girl meanderings. Listening to these two CDs makes it slightly embarrassing to remember when Merchant represented the perfect PETA cool, but there is something admirable about her relentlessness, especially in a decade when protest music was as uncool as the thrift-store peasant dresses she wore.