Rediscovering Their Muses
Twenty years after the formation of the band in 1983 by a then-14-year-old Kristen Hersh, a new album by Throwing Muses seemed as unlikely as anything. After recording what looked to be a swan song in 1996’s Limbo, the band was more or less forced to call it quits. Despite a dedicated fan base and plenty of critical acclaim, the group was simply not making money, and the economics of the music industry forced Throwing Muses to call it quits. Hersh continued her solo career, and her remaining bandmates, drummer David Narcizo and bassist Bernard Georges, went on to find day jobs.
Of course, the road had always been a rocky one for the Muses. Hersh had originally formed the band in high school with her half-sister, Tanya Donelly, and some friends from school. After releasing some EPs and albums on the auspicious 4AD label, the band had seen numerous line-up changes. The release of 1991’s The Real Ramona expanded the band’s audience and influence considerably, but tensions in the band caused Donelly to quit and take up briefly with the Breeders, before forming her own band, Belly. Not to be deterred, Hersh reformed the group with the current power trio line-up of Narcizo and Georges, and put out new product. After Hersh embarked on a successful solo outing, the band followed up with their most acclaimed effort yet, 1995’s University. However, by the time Limbo was released, the pressures of real life had taken their toll and the band folded.
Cue the year 2000. Inspired by the band’s rabid and fiercely dedicated Internet fanbase at www.throwingmusic.com, the Muses throw a convention style gathering that becomes a reunion of sorts. Gathering in Boston for an event titled the “Gut Pageant”, Hersh and company got together with more than 1,000 fans from around the world and just hung out a bit, culminating in a live performance that included an opening set from Frank Black and the first Tanya Donelly performance with the band in ten years. Inspired by the experience Hersh decided to gather up the rest of the band and head back to the studio for the first time in half a decade.
The results of this session proved to be invigorating for the band. Throwing Muses, the eponymously titled new album, is almost a return to roots, although it might be more accurately described as capturing the inherent live element that the band always possessed. Recording cheaply due to financial constraints turned out to be a liberation of sorts. Rather than the refined and honed songs found on University and Limbo, the songs on Throwing Muses seem raw and meaty. In a year that follows the rapid deluge of garage rock bands, the low production values here seem both appropriate for the times and fresh. Not quite grainy like most neo-garage acts, the songs here seem dirty and dense in a way that harkens back to Throwing Muses’ punk inception. The tracks are meaty and gristly, rumbling in the low buzz of distortion that has always been the Muses’ home, but with minimal high and ethereal effects sometimes found on their previous studio releases. Essentially, it sounds like a slightly-too-perfect live recording.
Additionally, Throwing Muses benefits greatly from the semi-reunion with Donelly. Although the core power trio of the latter-day Throwing Muses is intact, keeping the songs as sparse as ever, Donelly lent her voice to the album without adding guitars. The result is both a return to the sweet harmonies of The Real Ramona, and a balancing out of Hersh’s sometimes too-grave voice. The combination of a rough production with the beautiful vocal harmonics makes this one of the Muses’ best efforts to date. The low ends are heavy and throbbing, Georges’s bass rumbling and growling underneath the tracks with soupy, distorted sound. Narcizo’s drums are typically minimal, and with the lack of studio noodling, seem to channel the clipped pounding of early punk. Hersh’s guitars are also excellent, washing over many of the tracks with minimal riffage and hooks, allowing the brief moments of such to stand out against the dense backdrop and letting her vocals take center stage.
It wouldn’t be accurate to say that all of this results in a perfect album, nor one of the most important albums of the year, but Throwing Muses succeeds so many more times than it misses that it certainly marks an important achievement from an already accomplished act. The few songs that fall short of the mark tend to do so from a nebulous flatness. Precisely because of the spare melodies for which the Muses are well known, “Status Quo” seems to wander overly long in the same direction, and even when it gets to the musically interesting closing change up, it still seems dulled. The same problem afflicts “Speed and Sleep”. The songs themselves aren’t bad, but the heavy rock drone isn’t alleviated enough by the vocals to keep them engaging for the whole track.
Still, these sagging-in-the-middle-of-the-album tracks are the exception to the rule. Happily, Throwing Muses is filled with some great rockers, and there are plenty of highlight tracks on this disc. “Mercury”, the album opener, kicks off the new Throwing Muses album with a drum-roll filled, punk-tempo fist waver that alternates between swaying sing-along and slamdance fun. One of the best, and most punk-inspired, songs on the album has got to be “Civil Disobedience”, which fires up the energy for a blazing track that features some of Hersh’s best crisp and vivid lyrics. The evil lover tale in “Pandora’s Box”, the chipper pop of “Portia”, or the rock swirl of “Solar Dip” all feature the Muses at their energetic best.
“Epiphany” is the closest that Throwing Muses comes to approximating the Pixies (with a guitar and backing vocal combo that sounds vaguely reminiscent of “Where Is My Mind?”) and even features a rolling, Red Hot Chili Peppers-esque bass/drums flair, with lyrics that sound as though they’re a tribute to the dedicated fans who have kept Throwing Muses alive these years. The album closes with two of the sunniest tracks on the album. “Halfblast” is a brilliant power-pop send-up that verges on being another of the too-ambling tracks until it reaches the power “blast” of the “Come outside / Everyone’s outside” chorus. Finally, Throwing Muses closes with an odd stadium rock track in “Flying”. A throw-back to the early ‘90s wall-of-guitar sound, “Flying” seems like a perfect way to end the Throwing Muses’ return to the fray, and it stands out as the most “slick” song on the disc. However, it also features a descending repetition that carries that track down into the final notes. It’s an appropriate closer, but one that leaves a large question mark hovering over the disc.
It’s difficult to say with Throwing Muses whether the release of the album is a true reunification of the band. Although the Muses plan to tour to support the disc, it will be a brief one, with some scattered European dates announced and only two US dates confirmed at the time of this writing. And while it may be my personal bias, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the tracks I listed above as the most noteworthy all feature Donelly performing backing vocals in some capacity, although she is definitely not a part of the reformed Throwing Muses line-up. Even with twenty years of history, Throwing Muses don’t command the cultural cache of the Pixies. And even legends like the Breeders (post-Donelly as well) don’t command the same respect after long hiatuses (although I’d argue that, for the fan’s buck, Throwing Muses is easily as good if not better than Title TK). That these bands are a crazy game of six degrees of separation is not enough to make Throwing Muses a suddenly commercially viable enterprise.
What is certain is that this disc will please long time fans. It’s possibly the hardest rocking disc that the band has released since the ‘80s, but doesn’t lose any of the band’s essential elements. Hersh’s teenaged demons have been replaced by a thoroughly adult perspective, but it’s still one that mystifies and entertains. With Throwing Muses being release simultaneously with her latest solo album (The Grotto), Hersh fans will have plenty of new material to salivate over. Only time will tell whether Throwing Muses is indeed the final swan song.