FOLLOWING on the heels of its mesmerizing independent debut LP, "Secrets of the I Ching," 10,000 Maniacs has come up with an equally mesmerizing and more assured major label debut, "The Wishing Chair."
Working with producer Joe Boyd (Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson and R.E.M.), this New York state septet has developed an enchanting sound that suggests folk-rock gone mad with poetic fancies.
Part of what renders the Maniacs so intriguing is Natalie Merchant's obscure lyricism and strange diction. Singing in what sounds like some arcane Elizabethan dialect, Merchant achieves a provocative incomprehensibility worthy of R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe. Her vocals seem to skip and dance in her own carefree cadence over the band's shimmering aural landscapes.
Led by the delicate and ornate instrumental interplay of guitarists Robert Buck and J.C. Lombardo, the Maniacs construct a densely textured sound that evokes both a pastoral folkiness and a colorful modernism. On the sunny "Lilydale," the guitars folkishly pluck away, while in the fiery "Scorpio Rising," they turn steely and electric. Part of the unique richness of "The Wishing Chair" is that the record manages to sound at once gorgeously cheery, wistfully reflective and darkly surreal.
Another folk-pop group, Seattle's Uncle Bonsai, makes an auspicious debut with "A Lonely Grain of Corn." Guitarist Andrew Ratshin, who writes the songs, is joined on gorgeous, twisting (and sometimes twisted) harmonies by two women, Arni Adler and Ashley Eichradt. The mood is Roches-style cabaret, with musical edges owing as much to reggae, jazz and country as to the folk tradition. Ratshin's songs offer satirical looks at consumer culture ("Billboard Love"), yuppies ("Johnny, It's Downhill From Here) and sexual politics ("Suzy," "Penis Envy"), and even a reggae spoof ("Day Old Whale"). This is quirky, witty and compelling music.
10,000 MANIACS -- "The Wishing Chair" (Elektra 9 60428-4).
UNCLE BONSAI -- "A Lonely Grain of Corn" (Freckle 01908); both appearing Saturday at the 9:30 Club.