Throwing Muses - Anthology
Where to start? Well, let’s try this: I didn’t like them at first. Genuinely. Just didn't get it. But how I wanted to. And this is how it goes, of course. You put the needle on the record, retreat past piles of God-knows-what to the other side of your grubby room and you wait. Teenage expectations, informed not by smart, developed aesthetic sensibilities but rather a youthful intolerance of the pack and a desire to crow about your latest find, spoils from the most recent expedition to left-field. If mini-album The Fat Skier represented £4.49 of my dwindling funds thrown to the wind (debut Throwing Muses would have been an unjustifiably greater risk - a whole £5.99's worth ), the lure of bragging rights to come (“Hey! I like that Throwing Muses!”) dismissed all worries. But then ‘Garoux Des Larmes’ came jittering out of the speakers, clattering around the off beat like Bez on a waltzer and disappointment and idiot confusion sent my jaw to the floor. Oh, and let's not forget - it was sung in French. Seriously, did they want me on board or what?
That thin line between what you actually like and what you want the world to think you like, it’s treacherous. A friend at the time, and I quote: “I’ve been thinking about getting into Throwing Muses but I’m not sure I like the singer’s voice.” Indeed. (It was easy – eventually - for some of us to swoon to Kristin Hersh’s hiccup-y, oscillating vocal technique but I sympathised with the naysayers.) The choppy waters of hip and groovy on which the weeklies set all manner of gloriously unlistenable challenges afloat: The Butthole Surfers, Skinny Puppy, Swans. Acts such as these were regulars on the front pages of Melody Maker, Sounds and NME but who knew anyone who actually bought their damn records? Had heard them, even? Cowards scurried through the pages in search of something altogether more white bread and much less scary. (“Ooh look, an interview with The Sundays! Ride live review!”)
So, from abject fear to that big shiny 10 over on the left? How dat happen? Well, if the The Fat Skier represented a big fat challenge, the fact that it came at the tail end of something of a personal musical awakening, a shift from the mainstream (I'll spare you the pain and me the blushes) to the alternative, in particular the emerging US college scene (REM, 10,000 Maniacs), helped no end. In hindsight, the Muses appeared just as the gates were opening and I was (nearly) ready. Plus, once past that awkward opener, The Fat Skier is a considerably friendlier beast, the likes of ‘And a She-Wolf After the War’ and ‘A Feeling’ justifying the gushing press, in particular Melody Maker, who claimed that here was folk music reinvented for the burgeoning underground guitar scene.
And of course they were right. This dizzying, joyful artistry buoyed up the argument that the music that takes longest to infect your circulation stays there, a pumping, essential part of your nervous system. A few months later I nabbed follow-up and second album proper House Tornado on day of release (along with label-mates and fellow Bostonians Pixies’ Surfer Rosa – now that was a good week for new releases), got it home, played it seven, eight times straight and went to sleep with virtually no memory at all of what I’d heard. No hooks, no nothing; it was a ghost record. I woke half expecting it not to be there. A week later and the damn thing is fuelling my very soul, and it's become an ongoing and continual barrier to any album that tries to take its place at the peak of my affections. (Another sliver of critical response: Chris Roberts in Melody Maker, a long-time champion of the band, awarded it garlands but with reservations and reckoned he’d understand if friends asked him to turn it off…but on another day he’d probably just shoot them.)
That early ticket to immortality - bastards peaked early! – must have been a bitch to match but boy, they worked at it. Here’s the evidence: a silver jubilee whose celebrations deserve street parties on the moon, that most artful of labels 4AD shows love and respect in the only way they know. Anthology bulges with content. You get 21 tracks chosen by Kristin and another 22 rarities and b-sides. More importantly, the whole shebang is housed in a hardback book with artwork and liner notes to make the hardcore shiver. (Personal indulgence time: a tour poster from 1989 lists their UK dates supported by Pixies. This callow, spotty geek was at Manchester International 1, walking in to the fiery uproar of the support and the unmistakeable crunch of glass on the dance floor. H&S and plastic glasses go hang.) Kristin traces the Muses’ make-up and history via a series of glowing testimonies to current and former bandmates. In the early 90s David Narcizo was voted second best drummer in the world by International Musician Magazine – Kristin responds to that by calling him a loser. Don’t miss the wonderful story of how they began, Narcizo sat at a kit for the first time, Kristin looming over him with his fear and doubt. “This seems hard …” he mumbles. The mind really does boggle. The only ever-present along with Kristin, to many he’s as much the Muses as she is.
A trio of fine bassists are honoured. Super talented original member Leslie Langston, whose playing is “over your head.” (A fair comment – she comes close to dominating the first few albums with finger playing far more creative than it needed to be; lesser leaders would have sacked her for being too good for her own good.) Fred Abong stepped in for the recording and touring of 1991’s The Real Ramona. Kristin describes him as “a hero”, not just for learning their tricky back catalogue so quickly but for finding her heath foods while on tour and pregnant. Current bassist Bernard George “can play bass like a motherf***er” (very true) but still feels like the new guy until Kristin’s notes remind you he’s been in the band for nearly twenty years.
And then there is Tanya, the half sister whose song per album was so often the sugar to Kristin’s spice. If to really become the Tanya Donelly she had to become, she had to forge her own path, then the Muses’ loss was our ultimate gain. Belly became the shining star in an indie pop firmament starting to pale and lose lustre in the face of commerce and convention. After just two highly lovable albums they shuffled away as the boot of Britpop started to stomp on the weirdos. Shame, but debut album Lovesongs for Underdogs re-affirmed her individuality. Subsequent works have been introspective but deep, and confirm her as a singer-songwriter of of note. She still gets up and plays with Kristin on occasion, for which we offer thanks. Read Kristin’s words here and smile like a newborn as she reveals their whispered but impassioned plans as teenage girls to ensnare the music that filled their heads, to flout the rules and be “brave sissies.”
So, yes, the presentation is a glory. The content? The content is a galaxy of invention, testament to the unyielding pursuit of an artistic vision original and indefatigable. The liner notes make much of the insistent jabs of the industry and the deft moves required to stay out of reach, ensuring that if the songs refuse to keep coming they have a “home to return to.” Returning to this golden canon offers glimpses from wholly unexpected angles. Tracks that previously lived in the shadows of weighter, better-loved tunes, emerge blinking into the light. ‘Summer Street’, once sandwiched between the chunkier noise-works of (debut three piece album) Red Heaven, skips like leaves on the breeze. ‘Vicky’s Box’ is still shattering with its opening line about cars and blowjobs and queers. ‘Fish’ is a clatter of parade ground percussion and stark reminder of Kristin’s surrealist leanings: “I have a fish nailed to a cross on my apartment wall / He speaks to me with glassy eyes and words from Kafka…” ‘Finished’ and ‘Cry Baby Cry’, a bracing brace from the early Chains Changed EP earn inclusion, the former a jigsaw puzzle of absurd chord progressions and daring tempo changes, the latter Violent Femmes-style folk-punk clatter. Album tracks of note made way for these semi-rarities. Talk about strength in depth - if the Throwing Muses back catalogue was a football team, you could save a lot of time by simply choosing your best starting eleven with eeney-meeney-miney-mo. ‘Marriage Tree’. ‘No Way In Hell’. ‘Mania’. ‘You Cage’ (a novel in two words) and ‘A Feeling’ are twilight lullabies that demonstrate the band’s ease with calm after the storm.
So many viewpoints along the way. Of course, the albums proper are the way to go. Of course, some of the deeper history may well be worth exploring for casual observers (for example, the distinct and jolting change in Kristin’s vocal technique after four or five albums.) Of course, Kristin’s eventual diagnosing with bipolar disorder is key context for so much of the earlier work but maybe we take our cue from the lady herself, note that her expansive sleeve notes make no mention and move on. And, of course, ignore at your peril the continuing story, the near-genius way in which the Kristin and husband/manager Billy keep the band viable in the most democratic, fan-friendly way (www.cashmusic.org) ensuring that Throwing Muses keep breathing and that the songs “venture out into the world, making friends, becoming others’ soundtracks.”
No point in bemoaning omissions or admitting we preferred the earlier methodology (precise, needlepoint arpeggios, Kristin and Tanya’s coiled harmonies and gymnastic tempo management) over the later bar chord barrage. Re-invention is necessarily cruel, no doubt, and there are gems enough in the ongoing output to silence all but the harshest critic. (A world without the caustic, other-worldly vision of a Kristin Hersh is a world barely worth acknowledging.) But a handful of solid fan favourites here have surely picked themselves. ‘Hate My Way’ lit up the eponymous debut and it’s still as venomous as it is tender, moving from a whisper to a scream, guided by uncommonly accomplished – certainly for the indie scene - musicianship. ‘Colder’, House Tornado’s breathless opening drop-kick, is the band at their most expertly arranged, flitting around the ever-changing tempo and accompanied by a deeper production (courtesy of the influential Gary Smith) while etching black tales of domestic disturbance: “And I’m not loving, I’m not hating, I’m not creating / I’m losing my friends, and my young dreams / That was vicious air spilled in my face out of love / And out of love…”
And if we have to pinpoint the impossible and finger their best-loved song, we should maybe go for ‘Two Step’, their first, what - anthem? Closing The Real Ramona, moonlit and elegaic, significant for being the closing page on Tanya’s chapter, you barely recognise it as being the work of the woman who wrote, say, ‘Rabbits Dying’. It sneaks you into its orbit, strokes the stratosphere, then deposits you back on the planet under a hail of chiming guitar harmonics and its devastating climax with Kristin and Tanya in blissful harmony: “Two step behind the rest / One fingertip too long…” If so much of Kristin’s expressionistic story telling finds voice in often frustratingly obtuse wordplay, here’s proof that sometimes the best way to destroy the heart is to be as vague as you like; the song’s ‘narrative’ means as little – but as everything – to me today as it did way back when.
History. Drama. Art. So much art. The endless possibilities of popular music challenged and explored, these “brave sissies” prodding the surface and releasing impossible, uproarious magic from the depths. This is music with a working knowledge of your corpuscles, your heartbeat, songs that show battlefield courage in the face of the dark unknown, heedless of so many dummy guide conventions and hungry to make music, in Kristin’s words, “glowier and crappier and shinier and scarier and prettier and noisier than ever before.” What these songs have done for me, to me, over the years is, despite the clumsy, fumbling evidence above, beyond description and certainly beyond repayment. When words start to flop and fail you, it’s time to dry the quill and surrender. Let the music take you, let the music tell the story because, in the words of just one of these timeless jewels, the feeling describes itself.