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The early work of one of the best bands of our time,
This review is from: In A Dog House (Audio CD)
Throwing Muses came to the attention of listeners in the UK when they were the first US band to be signed to the British label 4AD. I first heard of them from interviews in the NME and Melody Maker. The band sounded intriguing, and I snapped up the eponymous debut album (the centrepiece of this CD) as soon as I found it.
I listened to it again the other day for the first time in years. What got me the first time around was the strange intimacy and directness of the music. As a (male) teenager I also responded to the confusion and anxiety that were so powerfully expressed in the music. Tanya Donelly's songs were slightly more 'beautiful', Kristin Hersh's songs were more full-throated and anguished, but there was still an organic band at work - they sounded like they were both singing and playing about the same sorts of experience. The rhythm section (Leslie Langston on bass and David Narcizo on drums) were powerful and primal. The emotional range was huge. The songs careered crazily all over the place. Sometimes, like Donelly's 'Green', they were reflective and almost seductive. Hersh's songs, like the jittery 'America' and menacing 'Stand Up', were usually more aggressive (although the forlorn 'Call Me' might have been written by either of them) and some songs, like 'Hate My Way', were taut with a despair so real it was painful to listen to. The heart of the album for me is 'Vicky's Box', a tense study of self-loathing that begins in the third person and ends in the first. It starts unassumingly, with loping bass and guitar lines a bit like early Talking Heads, but as Hersh circles warily around the story of a man scared to ride in cars because of the way they remind him of his own homosexuality, it slowly becomes more and more obsessive. About a third of the way through the riff breaks down and the band vamps behind Hersh on a queasy wash of one repeated chord. Switching to the second person, she sings about home - it feels like a cage, it's what you read, it's how you breathe, then, as if trying to console herself, she confesses 'I feel boxed in / but I'll be all right', the last word cracking like a sob; then, as the band pounds relentlessly behind her like waves of migraine nausea, she sings 'Home is where the heart lies...' in a flat, sullen voice like a person numbed by anti-depressants repeating a self-help mantra, then chops the line up and repeats it, more and more uneasily: 'The heart lies...the heart lies...welcome home...welcome home...' until she finally explodes in a terrifying, throat-tearing scream: 'WELCOME HOOOOOOME!!!' It's one of the most chilling moments in popular music and, characteristically, the band doesn't allow her the room to wallow, but kicks off in a double-time polka thrash and Hersh babbles and squawks her way to the end of the song. The much-quoted final line, characteristic of this band in the way it focuses on something ordinary and makes it seem frightening, is Hersh's passionate wail of 'A kitchen is a place where you prepare and clean up!' What the singer is preparing, and what she's cleaning up after, is left to the imagination.
Listening to the album now, what I'm most surprised by is how frightening it is. What the early Muses press stuff didn't tell you explicitly was that Hersh was struggling with bipolar disorder; there were allusions to the fact that she was a bit 'crazy' but then nearly all alternative band singers liked to pretend that they had some sort of contact with the divine madness. The members of Throwing Muses, who lived with Hersh's bipolarity day in and day out, played it down in order to emphasise that their songs weren't necessarily about themselves but had some kind of universal applicability, and they were right to, because their music isn't in the category of 'art by mad people'. (With Syd Barrett's solo work (say), Barrett's removal from reality makes him seem not quite in control of the music; listening to a song like 'If It's In You', you are moved not by the song itself but by Barrett's failure to communicate.) I remember one interview in which Hersh cheerfully admitted that she'd had some unspecified episode during which the rest of the band had basically saved her life, and in the liner notes to this CD she makes it clear that she wasn't speaking metaphorically. Nevertheless, their interview manner was so chipper that the listener's only clue to how much of a tightrope the lead singer was walking was the conviction with which she wrote and sang about fear and alienation. The band's music is strong, coherent and certain of itself. That's what makes it so frightening.
This top-value CD contains the excellent Chains Changed EP, which features two of their best songs - Hersh's thunderous and awesomely tight-lipped 'Finished' (Classic opening line: 'With a loud noise/everything breaks/everything falls') and Donelly's equally monumental 'Reel', which is no less troubled and troubling than any of Hersh's stuff. There's also the demo cassette that got them signed in the first place and some re-recordings of early songs with a later lineup.
They went on to make a lot of excellent music. Donelly left to form Belly and become an alternative pop star, and Hersh is now at the helm of her startlingly kickass hardcore band 50 Foot Wave, as well as having delivered some superb solo work. She's got a memoir coming out soon entitled 'Rat Girl', and according to a recent interview she is at last free of bipolar symptoms. She also makes a lot of her work available for free from her website, making her a righteous person by the standards of the music industry.
This CD contains some of the greatest rock ever made. When the Muses became labelmates, friends and touring partners of the Pixies, it was the Pixies who went on to be lionised by the media and have documentaries made about them, but I never had any doubt which was the better band. Not to diss the Pixies, but it's fair to say that there was alway something a bit ironic about their intensity. But to listen to Throwing Muses was to get in touch with something on a different level: something true, profound, frightening and ultimately empowering - it's a horrible word, but I can't think of a more appropriate one for the bravery in which this band faced up to some very dark and troubling demons, and turned its battles into places where we could meet each other.