Throwing Muses - University (1995)
Sometimes a great album comes along and maybe it's just not the right time to hear it. You're not in a place in your life where you can really appreciate or connect with it. For example, when David Bowie's HOURS album first came out, I thought it was limp and lackluster. But the fact is, it was a time in my life when all I wanted to do was just rock out. I wanted to hear Bowie albums like ALADDIN SANE or disk 2 of BOWIE AT THE BEEB. Since then, HOURS has turned out to be one of my favorite Bowie albums.
Such is the case with Throwing Muses' UNIVERSITY. When it was first released I was actually attending a university and hearing an album with that title just didn't appeal to me for some reason. I was already in the middle of a "university" experience. And then I heard the lead single "Bright Yellow Gun" which, at the time, sounded to me like a contrived slice of alterna-pop, a cheap bid to get noticed by the alternative rock community, far removed from what the Muses were truly capable of. And thus I passed on the latest Throwing Muses album that year . . . So it's kinda strange that after over two decades of listening to this group, one of my very favorite bands of all time, I have come to regard UNIVERSITY as, song for song, the very best album they've ever done.
Some of their other songs are actually better than anything on UNIVERSITY. For example, I think "Pearl" and "Carnival Wig" are two that would definitely qualify, and I would say RED HEAVEN, the record that contains these two tracks, is a strong contender for top honors. But it has a few songs that don't rank so high. One in particular, "Dio", which I always skip, is weak enough to disqualify RED HEAVEN from my number one spot on its own. I expect most people would say that the best albums ever made have no weak songs; you love listening to the whole thing front to back without wanting to skip anything. And for me, UNIVERSITY fits that bill.
Certainly THE REAL RAMONA is the biggest fan favorite and deservedly so. The last album to feature Tanya Donelly, it's loaded with fantastic, melodic pop songs along with adventurous, hard-edged guitar tracks. But unfortunately, there's one track I always skip and that would be "Golden Thing". For me it's the weakest track and it features lyrics that really annoy me ("Golden thing, and when you get there better kiss me!" - ugh). Besides, I prefer the heavier, more rocking later albums where Kristen Hersh is front and center.
Even though it's almost impossible to choose from so many great albums, my personal favorite would have to be RED HEAVEN. But for the sake of remaining objective, I believe UNIVERSITY deserves to be called their very best. Highly recommended.
"Bright Yellow Gun" - Contrary to my initial reaction, this is indeed a great song. It does start off like a rather conventional alternative track, but give it a chance and it soon reveals itself as having much more depth than I gave it credit for. Full of multiple rhythms and guitar lines, it builds with intensity into a streamlined kaleidoscope of heaven. Kristen Hersh is one of the most underrated guitarists and songwriters that I've ever heard! ****1/2
"Start" - is a brilliant song. I just love the way Kristen lays her guts on a platter for the feasting. Her voice is so distinctive and raw and this song is so sexy..."I start at his knees and I'll end in his dreams..." And like many of these songs, her overdubbed background vocals are so effective and moving. Intense! *****+
"Hazing" - has a forceful, lurching rhythm. So many of her songs have a power more compelling than even the heaviest metal through sheer emotion, brilliant songwriting and musicianship. "Hazing" is indeed powerful, all the more so for its shifting dynamics and surprising bursts of energy. Looking at the CD sleeve back in college, I foolishly concluded that I didn't need to hear a song about hazing. It is indeed about hazing, about enduring twisted forms of abuse and accepting victimization with a resigned nonchalance. *****+
"Shimmer" - is an upbeat, driving rocker, building in intensity like many of the songs on UNIVERSITY. And also like many of these songs, it evokes water imagery. Exactly what this running theme is meant to convey I couldn't really say; it's open to interpretation, no doubt one of the truly great things about music. New bassist Bernard Georges provides a muscular, melodic bass line. In fact he proves himself to be an excellent addition to the band throughout the whole album. ****1/4
"Calm Down, Come Down" - At a minute and a half, this tune is sort of an interlude between songs. It's a nice mid-tempo rocker that meanders around while Kristen informs us in song that she doesn't want to calm down, come down. ***3/4
"Crabtown" - is lovely and quite serene, accompanied by sounds of seagulls and the seashore. There's a hint of heartbreak and escapism as well as intoxication, one of the most common themes in Hersh's songs. *****
"No Way in Hell" - Full of psychedelic wah-wah sprawl, this song paints a brutal picture, once again open to interpretation, but I see it from the point of view of a homeless alcoholic woman who is being taken advantage of by a man she still desperately clings to. *****+
"Surf Cowboy" - has such a tasty, slinky rhythm ...and once again Kristen slips under the water...David Narcizo turns in a typically perfect drum performance, on point as always, and in this case, suitably understated. Like Kristen, he's another unfairly underrated musician - one hell of a drummer! *****
"That's All You Wanted" - is a sweet, easy-going tune with some very nice cello accompaniment (an instrument that makes several appearances on UNIVERSITY). It's my least favorite song on the album but it's still very good and it's since grown on me quite a bit (truth be told, it used to annoy me). There's some nice guitar picking and subtle chord changes in there. ****
"Teller" - gets my vote for best song on the album. It's got so much going for it - a haunting, potent vocal melody from Hersh, powerhouse drumming from Narcizo, a muscular guitar riff, sophisticated changes, evocative lyrics, classic soft/loud dynamics...absolutely entrancing! *****+
"University" - is a spacey interlude featuring Kristen's own baby son doing what little boys in the studio typically do when put in front of a microphone, and it's undeniably cute. Soon a guitar begins to play below a placid atmosphere scattered with swarming ghosts. One guitar picks out a rhythm while another adds some colorful texture. Very nice. ***3/4
"Snake" - slithers sexily. One hears an organ beneath the drum kit, bongo drums and other percussion effects to enhance the mood. "One more button undone..." *****
"Flood" - A gripping track that, from my perspective, conveys the overwhelming experience of getting really high...*****
"Fever Few" - "You bring me water/ You bring me dope/ I don't like you/ But you're my only hope"...this should give you an idea about the desperation felt in this incredible, head-spinning song full of hallucinations and longing. A potent climax to an incredible album. *****+