WHEN MERCHANT WAS A MANIAC

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It's hard to remember or imagine the time before Natalie Merchant was a solo act, and the new "10,000 Maniacs: Time Capsule" DVD that recalls her former band is only of limited help. That's because, beginning with home movies shot in 1971 by Anthony Merchant, it's more about Natalie than any backing players. Throughout, you see the band in the performance videos, but the music videos that make up maybe half the disc are almost all Merchant-ising.

The earliest performance clips are the most compelling reason to buy the disc. There's a quaint innocence and stiffness to the band during a series of early clips set to "Tension," from the album "Hope Chest," and for anyone wondering, they offer proof that Natalie's trademark stage twirling started at the beginning. One wonders if she liked to make herself dizzy when she was a child.

As for those music videos, you can keep them. Most are insipid or worse, such as during "Like the Weather," when she cavorts through a set with chickens on a bed. In most of them, she's dolled-up-ugly, saved only, as always, by her sonorous voice and the still-striking mix of sweet pop sounds and dead-serious subject matter: alcoholism, child abuse, depression, teen pregnancy, poverty.

The Natalie-centric nature of the video - she directed, of course - is as off-putting as it ever was, but it does reflect reality: the Maniacs tried to continue after the split in 1997, but without Natalie, few fans were interested. Meanwhile, seven years later, she's still humming: She opens a two-night stand tonight at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge. (Electra, $14.99)