Sometimes the simplest strategies yield the richest results. The Earth Pressed Flat is 10,000 Maniacs’ most homegrown project since its earliest recordings seventeen years ago, yet it may be among the band’s most striking and eloquent.
Mary Ramsey (vocals, viola)
John Lombardo (guitar)
*Robert Buck (guitar)
Dennis Drew (keyboards)
Steven Gustafson (bass)
Jerome Augustyniak (drums)
It was assembled from material they had been developing over the last four years – both before and after their 1997 Geffen release Love Among the Ruins – and recorded in an unhurried fashion in and around their Jamestown, New York base. Joined by producer/engineer/friend Armand John Petri, the band recorded in traditional studios, at home, on local stages and in an abandoned pharmacy! They tried to keep the process as low-key as possible, favoring the immediacy of their performances over belabored overdubs. The uncluttered settings reveal the beauty at the heart of the Maniacs’ work: the combination of ethereal strings, guitars and earthy keyboards creates a unique and affecting sound somewhere left of folk rock.
In a period when the gap between corporate music biz giants and idiosyncratic independents couldn’t be any wider, the Maniacs illustrate just how creatively rewarding the do-it-yourself approach can be. They have returned to their roots, both artistically and geographically, and in so doing show how much they’ve grown. It was in 1983 that they released Secrets Of The I-Ching on their own, an album that seemed to come out of nowhere – except for those who actually knew where Jamestown, New York was – with a style that was a little trippy, a little folky, and really rocked in an original, off-kilter way. They were almost immediately courted by major labels, whose reps joined a growing number of fans at their CBGB’s showcases in early ‘84, and they signed with Elektra Records later that year.
Although their commercial success was not instantaneous, they enjoyed a groundswell of support from both critics and concertgoers, and their second album, In My Tribe, grew in sales to platinum proportions. Their sound remained unclassifiable enough – and in demand enough – that the radio industry had to practically invent the Triple-A format to figure out a place for them in their regimented world. Countless artists who aspired to create smart, melodic alternative rock have the Maniacs to thank for opening doors and ears to their approach.
The Earth Pressed Flat will sound familiar to Maniacs fans, but its focus is sharper and the playing sounds particularly expressive in stripped-down settings. It’s not so much unplugged as un-stressed. Keyboardist Dennis Drew hails its “independent lo-fi spirit.” Vocalist Mary Ramsey simply calls it “natural.” Ramsey joined the band in l995, along with her longtime collaborator and original Maniac, guitarist John Lombardo. Ramsey co-wrote much of the music and lyrics to the band’s last release, Love Among the Ruins, but The Earth Pressed Flat offered her the chance to become a more significant part of the band’s writing and recording process. It was rewarding, Ramsey says, to have been given the experience of writing lyrics on her own from her own perspective. Her vocal style has an attractive folk lilt to it, and it’s particularly suited to two well-chosen covers, Mimi Farina’s “In The Quiet Morning” and Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where The Time Goes.” The Maniacs always had a way with their covers, from their best-selling version of Patti Smith’s “Because The Night” to their more recent take on Roxy Music’s “More Than This.” (That was such an inspired choice that a European group has copied their arrangement, along with the dance flavor that master mixer Todd Terry brought to the Maniacs’ track, and it’s now climbing the Euro charts.)
Dennis Drew characterized the recording of The Earth Pressed Flat as “on the run,” since the band was regularly hitting the road to perform. But even their touring has taken a more independent turn: instead of long, night-after-night itineraries, the band has gone out for short stints to some near and some very faraway places. “More Than This” had been appropriated by a Brazilian soap opera for its soundtrack and that led to dates in Sao Paolo and Rio De Janiero and an appearance on a popular late-night show hosted by, in Mary’s words, “the David Letterman of Brazil.” In more exotic journeys, the band has recently visited Bahrain, Kuwait, Portugal and Panama.
10,000 Maniacs today consists of long-time members keyboardist Dennis Drew, bassist Steven Gustafson, drummer Jerome Augustyniak, along with more recent additions, guitarist John Lombardo and singer/violist Mary Ramsey (guitarist Robert Buck sadly passed away December 19, 2000). Lombardo, an original member of the band in the early ‘80s, and Ramsey had long been friends of the family, as it were; their own group John & Mary had frequently toured with 10,000 Maniacs as an opening act while Natalie Merchant still fronted the band.
The Earth Pressed Flat incorporates instrumental bits and pieces recorded in rehearsal and on the road that flow in and out of the proper tracks. These snippets somehow help this collection of tunes recorded in different times and places become a cohesive whole.