My drummer friend would often pick me up in the middle of the night so that we could drive around and chat while he delivered bundles of newspapers. Often I would come home nauseous and reeking of cigarette smoke giddy with big ideas. The nausea was due to the fact that Drummer used the brake as a kick pedal to play along with whatever was pumping out of the speakers and the giddiness was always because the twilight drive dictated that we pop Throwing Muses’ The Real Ramona into the dashboard deck and listen at top volume. Occasionally we would jump out of the truck, drop a bundle of papers in front of a local business and briefly suck in the clean night air before settling back into the smoke filled cab and flipping the tape to side two.
At the time I considered myself, based upon my recent residency change, to be the Prince of Providence, and Drummer, after ten years on the precipice of regional musical fame, was known as the King of New England. Despite our delusions of grandeur, both of us were self-aware enough to realize we paled in comparison to Rhode Island’s true rock royalty, Newport’s Throwing Muses. The release of their fourth long-play album found the band altering our worlds and planting roots for what would soon become the seam-busting genre known as alternative rock. The Real Ramona found bandleader Kristin Hersh and her stepsister Tanya Donelly both reaching a new maturity in their singing, songwriting, and guitar playing. This growth translated into their most complete album featuring a scintillating mixture of anthemic pop songs, ambient sound collages and fierce rockers.
The two singles released by 4AD Records quickly showed the differing approaches in their songwriting. First single and Hersh composition “Counting Backwards” explodes with the superb percussion of David Narcizo and focuses on a more rhythmic approach than on their previous album Hunkpapa. The main reason for this shift was the addition of Newport bassist Fred Abong to replace longtime member Leslie Langston.
Where Langston took an overtly melodic approach, Abong focused on providing a solid foundation for the songs, which allowed Narcizo to stray and be more creative. In an atypical production move, Narcizo’s melodic fills are often given equal billing due in part to the expanding musical vocabulary of Hersh and the telling ideas of producer Dennis Herring. This is never more apparent than on “Counting Backwards” where Narcizo opens the song with a sensational fill and then repeats it to bridge the verse and the chorus. Add this to the two part vocal harmonies of Hersh and Donelly in the verses, and the swirling guitar lead which is reminiscent of the one Hersh wrote for the single “Dizzy” from Hunkpapa , and one has to wonder why this song was not a radio hit.
On the second single, and one of Donelly’s two songwriting credits on the album, “Not Too Soon”, the band lays down a supercharged Top 40 contender anchored by Donelly’s juxtaposition between a sing-song chanting in the verse and voice box acrobatics in the chorus, leading her voice to an soaring mimicry of the guitar lead. Again, Narcizo’s fills are pulled to the forefront of the mix during the breaks driving into each chorus. The result is a 1960s garage rock feel much in the vein of the Strangeloves smash “I Want Candy”, or even more fitting would be a comparison to the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack”.
New to the Throwing Muses dynamic on The Real Ramona was the addition of a discernable dance groove to their music. The brief snippet “Him Dancing” illustrates early on in the record Hersh’s desire to get their brainy plaid-clad followers off their asses at live shows and make the band something more than a cerebral phenomena. This plan is realized three tracks later with the libido charged “Golden Thing”. The track again finds Narcizo’s fills prominent in the mix, Abong’s bass popping and swinging more than usual, and all the while Donelly chops away at her Gibson SG like a grand sequoia. Hersh trades off between a searing call to arms when she yelps, “Are you going to see this, golden thing?” and then switches to a disarming and sultry tone when she follows it with, “And when you get there, better kiss me”. This contrast best sums up the spirit and energy of this track.
An instant classic and fan favorite, “Hook in Her Head” is the emotional core of the album. At the outset the track gives the impression that is a straightforward confessional mid-tempo cut, but as the second verse veers off into a spoken word no man’s land we begin to understand that this band is just begin to exercise their new found abilities. Hersh chants, “And when you die it’s a shame / But your old life stays the same” along to Narcizo’s tribal beat and by the time Donelly’s SG freaks out it is apparent that this band is taking us on a voyage to a new place in music. Just as the song starts to collapse on itself, producer Dennis Herring throws in some looped field recordings of haunting voices and Donelly and Hersh’s guitars wage a melodic battle over Narcizo’s pulsing rhythm bringing the song come to a triumphant close.
All great albums have tracks that are not immediate and unveil themselves to you over time. Last year, I was reading Siri Hustvedt’s novel What I Loved and came across a passage about the tragic life of Ellen West, an anorexic who took her own life at the age of 33. For years, I had enjoyed Kristin Hersh’s vitriolic song of the same name without ever knowing that there was a real life case that provided the framework for the song. This fact only provided more enjoyment as a cryptic song took on a new dimension. “Old becomes new” discovery is common in the Muses world. Other evidence to support this is an enjoyable acoustic song fragment from Hunkpapa was fleshed out into the superior wailing rocker “Say Goodbye” on The Real Ramona.
Donelly’s second contribution to The Real Ramona is the sublime “Honeychain”. Driven by sea shanty bass and Donelly’s liquid sugar vocals in the verse, this song gave listeners an early view of things to come as both Donelly and Abong would leave the band after touring to record an album of Donelly’s songs under the moniker Belly. Pure and childlike Donelly’s vocal is the highlight of this track, accentuated by a swooning guitar line. “Honeychain” provides a welcomed sing-a-long confection to the second side of this album. The final track, “Two Step”, is an anomaly within the Throwing Muses catalogue for the fact that it is the only song to receive a songwriting credit shared by the entire group. Building off the guitar work and driving bass line of “Honeychain”, this track utilizes intertwining guitar and vocal harmonies by Hersh and Donelly. Lyrically this may be the most obtuse track on The Real Ramona. Kristin Hersh assumes lead vocal duties and her tone often feels subdued but not detached. There is fluidity to the phrasing that is a perfect match to the tone of the accompanying music. As Donelly’s backing vocals float over Hersh proclaiming, “Two Step, behind the rest / One fingertip too long / A hole / A hole in the box they carry / Spills sugar in the road”, we all want to believe that we understand the meaning of these simple words. After years of personalizing these lyrics to provide some message about my life, it is now my belief that Hersh was speaking about the fragile nature of the band she created years before with her high school friend and stepsister.
Before the release of the next Throwing Muses album, Red Heaven, Donelly and Abong would leave the band and Hersh would commence work on her solo debut Hips and Makers. Belly’s debut, Star, would go on to garner three Grammy nominations and Hersh’s Hips and Makers, anchored by her duet “Your Ghost” with Michael Stipe, would become the highest selling album of her career. My friend Drummer and I don’t talk much anymore, but I think that if we did, we would both agree that The Real Ramona was a watershed album for us. In a moment were we both searching for some greater understanding about life, music, and everything in between, The Real Ramona provided some affirmation that we were headed in the right direction.
// Notes from the Road
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