Friday, September 2, 2011

Throwing Muses Release Career-Spanning Anthology: A Review And A Look Back

To mark 25 years (!) since the release of their self-titled debut album, Throwing Muses have decided to put out a career-spanning anthology, called -- appropriately enough -- Anthology and it's out on 5 September on 4AD (13 September here in the States).


It is impossible for me to write objectively about Throwing Muses. I just can't do it.

I've written a bit about my breakdown in 1987 and subsequent hospitalization but I don't know if I can stress just how important the first Muses LP was to my recovery.

I got the import cassette at the University of Maryland Record Co-Op in June of 1987 -- they had it on vinyl too -- the assistant manager played it a bit when I was in there -- but I had already made the switch to tapes and I didn't have a CD player yet.

I got The Fat Skier (1987) mini-album on cassette there later that summer.

And by late 1988, I would be "night manager" at that same store, playing the same vinyl copy of Throwing Muses that Don, the assistant manager and my new friend, had played for me as a customer a year earlier.

And in April of 1989, my job at that store got me backstage to meet Kristin Hersh and the Muses at the old 9:30 Club on the Hunkpapa tour.

But that first record sounded like what I felt like when I was falling apart in the spring of 1987.

Before I cut myself up a bit, I would write frantic poetry in an attempt to channel the turmoil in my head.

When I played Throwing Muses on tape, it sounded familiar. But it sounded like Kristin and her crew were harnessing the chaos, whipping it like a team of horses.

In love with the sound of words, Kristin -- and sometimes Tanya Donelly -- purred/growled/roared/shouted/screamed the lyrics on that record.

As I played that Throwing Muses import cassette, I saw the title "Delicate Cutters" and -- without hearing the song yet -- knew that whoever had written this album's lyrics had experienced some mental health issues.

This wasn't an important album with a message about mental health. Nor was it an exercise in lovable eccentricity, like Robyn Hitchcock pretending to be the new Syd Barrett.

Without being precious about it, Kristin Hersh was creating art out of her inner pain.

And for me and many others of my generation, it was a relief to finally recognize a voice that you almost didn't know you needed to hear.

In June of 1987, I sat in my shitty car after dropping out of college a few times, with no job prospects on the horizon, and I played that tape and thought about writing.

Through line-up changes and the vicissitudes of the music industry, Kristin Hersh has used Throwing Muses to translate the intensely personal into something communal.

If most of the other 4AD bands at the time were ethereal and almost Gothic, Throwing Muses were a bunch of Anne Sextons rocking out with a guy on skins who sounded like a high school marching band drummer on uppers.

"With a loud noise, everything breaks. Everything falls."

That line, that moment at the start of "Finished" -- those drums!!! -- seems to capture the beauty and chaos -- beauty-in-chaos -- aesthetic of Throwing Muses.

A lot of bands tried to copy parts of The Replacements' template -- Goo Goo Dolls, I'm calling you! -- but no one sounds like this. No other band could have written something like "Mania", right? No other band was crazy enough to try.

In an interview Kristin said that she was never sure "if the music was disease or therapy" but for many fans, it was the latter.

And as I grew older and felt better, I still went back to the Muses.


I could bitch about what's not here -- "Delicate Cutters", "Dizzy", and "Solardip" are the ones I'm missing -- but I'm happy with this non-chronologically ordered compilation; this is an interesting mix, and one that provides a pretty good introduction to the band.

Additionally, the sequencing allows a listener to see how consistent Kristin Hersh and crew have been over the years. The first album doesn't sound so shockingly raw when the cuts are sandwiched between other, latter songs.

For the benefit of other longtime fans, here's a breakdown of what's on the half of the Anthology that serves as a Best Of...:

From Throwing Muses (1986):
"Hate My Way" and "Vicky's Box"

From The Fat Skier (1987):
"Garoux Des Larmes", "A Feeling", and "You Cage"

From Chains Changed (1987):
"Finished" and "Cry Baby Cry"

From those sessions and the Lonely Is An Eyesore (1987) compilation:

From House Tornado (1988):
"Marriage Tree" and "Colder"

From Hunkpapa (1989):

From The Real Ramona (1991):
"Two Step"

From Red Heaven (1992):
"Summer St." and "Furious"

From University (1995): -- (Incorrectly listed as 1996 in the notes)
"Bright Yellow Gun" and "No Way In Hell"

From Limbo (1996): -- (Incorrectly listed as 1998 in the notes)
"Tar Kissers", "Mr. Bones", and "Limbo"

From Throwing Muses (2003):
"Pretty Or Not" and "Flying"

21 great songs!

I always wanted "A Feeling" to be a big hit single on college radio. I think it was on some Sire comp. in the States and I wondered how many college students heard and the loved the song only to buy The Fat Skier and get pleasantly assaulted by the band's joyous rawk.

Nearly 25 years later, it still ranks as one of Kristin's best vocal performances. And Tanya's backing vocals are lovely as well.

"Marriage Tree", like most of that House Tornado album, has some fantastic lyrics -- "Treat me like a 12-year-old man..." -- but it's really a showcase for David Narcizo's drumming and the marriage to Hersh's lyrics. The rhythm shifts and changes in weird ways but the song surges forward thanks to those drums. Listening now, I can hear a touch of Bill Berry from R.E.M. here -- think "The One I Love" only jazzier.

What more can one say about "Fish"? The song was the earthly counterpart to the wispy and atmospheric bits on the Lonely Is An Eyesore (1987) compilation; not for nothing do I recall quite a few 4AD fans complaining about the cut and how it jarred the mood of the album. Little did they know that in a few short months The Pixies would further jar the ethereal vibe of that 4AD sound.

Narcizo's precise and fevered drumming is a human parodying the Cocteaus' drum machine with that lead guitar -- Kristin or Tanya? -- swirling like "Over, Under, Sideways, Down" by The Yardbirds. And the lyrics -- Kafka, fish, men, hips, numbers -- are at once gibberish and genius, stream of consciousness-stuff and careful poetry.

As for "Hate My Way": I don't think I can write about it without getting too sentimental (again) but the song still serves as a sort of model for the Muses: the time signature changes, the vocal ups-and-downs, the funky bass, the fusion-y drumming -- all those things define Throwing Muses in ways that my words can't. As some critic at the time mentioned, the song is vaguely reminiscent of Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime" and, like that Heads cut, the song is sort of the perfect encapsulation of its creator(s). There are Muses songs with more rage, more joy -- and ones more languid and chill as well -- but when you say the name of the band, the ear in my brain hears this.

The drums nearly drop to gentle taps and Kristin asks:

"How do they kill children?"

Somehow, she makes the moment less precious and more achingly precise, less heart-on-the-sleeve stuff and more urgent worry.

And, weirdly, Kristin's hate is energy. The nihilism of Punk is here refined into something sustaining and pure. Like Lydon sang, "Anger is an energy" and this is the song that proves it.

The twang of "No Way in Hell" -- like the dying squalls of Billy Gibbons' guitar -- gives way to the slow burn of "Colder". There's that R.E.M.-like guitar spiral over the waltz-time beat as Kristin's voice trills those great lyrics of the House Tornado opener. The vocals echo from far back in the sonic mix and that gives the cut an interesting flavor.

"There's only darkness upstairs..."

"Bright Yellow Gun" recalls the glory days of American indie rock. Thanks to Throwing Muses, The Pixies had a chance to get popular on 4AD. Thanks to The Pixies' quiet/loud template, Nirvana were able to escape the sonic shackles of the Sub Pop ethos of the very late 1980s.

And thanks to Nirvana, stuff like "Bright Yellow Gun" still got released on a major label and actively played on college and alternative radio stations in the mid-1990s.

(Though it's worth noting that that album was the last for the Muses on a major label in the States; getting dropped by Sire oddly gave Kristin more control over subsequent releases on other labels. And that lead to her forming CASH Music.)

Not only that, but -- again -- the drums are ferocious. Bernard Georges on bass doesn't disappoint either -- there's a muscular rhythm here that is a bit heavy and almost malevolent.

"And I think I need a little poison...."

"Flying", with its Bonham-like drums and buzzsaw guitar, still charms. Frankly, that 2003 self-titled Muses LP is looking more and more like an unheralded masterpiece of modern indie rock. "Pretty or Not" starts like something off of House Tornado and then kicks into the roar of the title phrase. Seriously, if this Anthology is the first Muses record you buy, and their first album the second, let the third purchase be that 2003 album.


I'm not going to spoil the hidden gems of this second disc of rarities and B-sides. Just let me say that there's nearly 80-minutes of great stuff here. "Cottonmouth", that B-side to "Counting Backwards" (1991), seems like one of Kristin's best overall compositions; frankly, I like it better than most of what's on The Real Ramona (1991) album.

There are different versions of "Snailhead" and "Finished" here -- most of the Chains Changed (1987) release is represented in some way on this collection -- as well as a psuedo-remix of "Limbo".

Also of note are the covers, with my 3 faves being "Amazing Grace", The Beatles' "Cry Baby Cry" -- the Muses' song of the same name is on Disc 1 -- and the instrumental version of Hendrix's "Manic Depression" with Hersh, Narcizo and Georges whipping up one wholly unholy racket.

To think that I once was so impressed with the Red Hot Chili Peppers' cover of Jimi's "Fire"? This rocks just as hard.

If you, like me, bought the A Matter Of Degrees (1990) album mainly for that Throwing Muses cut -- (the soundtrack has a lot of great stuff, actually) -- then rest assured that the song is here in an even better version: "Matter of Degrees (Back Road Remix)" is a heavier and catchier version of the song and it's one of the treasures on this second disc.

Forget that Shins shit in Garden State (2004); that first Throwing Muses record will change your life.

It changed mine.

Follow the history of Throwing Muses on 4AD

Follow Kristin Hersh and all her various incarnations here on Throwing and on the CASH Music site.