When Natalie Merchant announced she was leaving 10,000 Maniacs back in 1994, my first thought was to wish John Lombardo would rejoin the band and bring Mary Ramsey as Merchant’s replacement. And that’s exactly what happened.
Lombardo and Ramsey had been performing under the moniker John & Mary, and the duo recorded two albums for RykoDisc that sounded just like the Maniacs. Perhaps the presence of Maniacs drummer Jerome Augustinyak and guitarist Rob Buck had something to do with that.
Ramsey herself toured with 10,000 Maniacs, playing viola and singing back-up. (She can be heard on the band’s MTV Unplugged appearance.) So it seemed like a perfect match, and for a time, it was.
Love Among the Ruins was the first 10,000 Maniacs album without Merchant, and the band sounded like it had something to prove, which they did. Merchant’s charisma distracted listeners from the chemistry between her and her bandmates — they needed her literary perspective just as much as she needed the force of their playing.
As it would turn out, Merchant’s solo career would get weighed down by her seriousness, and the Maniacs couldn’t shake the perception they were just her backing band.
That didn’t stop Love Among the Ruins from being 10,000 Maniacs’ most energetic and coherent album since In My Tribe. Blind Man’s Zoo was too dark, and Our Time in Eden too commercial. Love Among the Ruins upgraded the folk-rock trappings of the band’s indie days with better finesse.
Of course, it tanked.
Still, Ramsey’s sweet voice provided a welcome change in the group’s writing. No longer shackled by Merchant’s preciousness, they could afford to sound fun. And they do.