Poor Mary Ramsey: Despite taking copious notes while backing up Natalie Merchant’s peerless alto on 10,000 Maniacs’ last two albums, the band’s new lead dervish is nevertheless a cut-rate version of her since-gone-solo predecessor. (OK, full disclosure: I would relinquish a lifetime of 7-Eleven Smokie Big Bites for one date with ultraveggie Miss Tigerlily.) Maybe Love Among the Ruins wouldn’t be such an awkward experience if Ramsey didn’t try so hard to pretend that only the names have changed: Her phrasing and poise are soulless copycatting, but alas, her voice is tinny and generic compared with the lushness of Merchant’s lost lilt. (OK Nat, how about if I toss out those sordid cheap-beer weekends and that nagging penchant for less-than-immaculate gentlemen’s clubs?) There is some good news for fans unwilling to abandon the group’s side: Although all better suited physically for jobs in accounting, the middle-aged Maniac boys are still an extremely engaging band (the resurfacing of founding member John Lombardo only tightens the tunes). And while Love Among the Ruins basically mills around poppy Our Time in Eden territory—a few songs, like the opening “Rainy Day” and the title track, are straight-up covers of “These Are Days”—lead guitarist Robert Buck has rediscovered the frenetic plucking of his Wishing Chair days, often making for a cool blend of past and present. But perhaps the most refreshing aspect of all (and please, oh please Natalie, don’t hold this against me, ’cause I’m really not crazy about this album) is that the Maniacs’ boring social agenda, once crammed down our throats, has taken a back seat to the things we do for love. (And speaking of love, Natalie…)—Sean Daly