If for no other reason, this Boston-based quartet reserved its seat in music history by being the first American band signed to the British 4AD label. An eclectic blend of jerky guitar pop and songwriter Kristin Hersh’s unpredictably eccentric vocals, the early work by Throwing Muses bears no resemblance to any other group or artist in recent memory.
The group’s first two untitled releases are fairly obscure: a commonly bootlegged five-song 7-inch EP (that features an early bassist) and a self-released 1985 cassette that contains most of the songs that would comprise the band’s first album (plus one that wouldn’t get redone until The Fat Skier).
Produced by up-and-coming studio star Gil Norton, Throwing Muses (the LP) is startling; attribute the uniqueness to Hersh’s remarkable singing on “Hate My Way,” “Green” and “America (She Can’t Say No).” Truly one of a kind. With fewer twists and turns than the album’s songs, the four-track Chains Changed (with one lead vocal by Tanya Donelly (Hersh’s step-sister), the group’s junior guitar-playing songwriter) somehow has even more impact.
College radio airplay and critical acclaim prompted Sire to sign Throwing Muses and release The Fat Skier: six songs on one side and a nearly nine-minute seventh (“Soul Soldier”) on the flip. With onetime Violent Femmes producer Mark Van Hecke behind the board, the music appears to be verging on the formulaic; the record is considerably less striking than the band’s prior output. It’s still distinctive, but an injection of fresh ideas at this point wouldn’t hurt. House Tornado only amplifies the problems of The Fat Skier: with a minimum of musical variety, songs run into one another. What was, upon inception, avant-garde has become static and predictable.
David Narcizo’s stiff drumming sets the tone for Hunkpapa, a chilly and dull record that could be by any number of contempo jangle-pop bands. Along with the uneventful material, Hersh’s voice, no longer possessing any strong character, is ineffectual and a bit strident at times; the rote guitar backdrop doesn’t pick up the slack. Of Donelly’s two tunes, “Angel” is tuneful and appealing; the other merely provides a bit of light variety.
The four-song Dizzy EP (built around a Hunkpapa track) also contains the non-LP “Santa Claus” and compelling 1988 live recordings of “Downtown” (from House Tornado) and the frenetic “Mania” (from Hunkpapa).
As the final Throwing Muses album before Donelly — having tested the world beyond in the Breeders — moved out to form Belly, The Real Ramona betrays no special creative tension or gathering storm clouds, although the recording process was reportedly a high-wire balancing act. With Fred Abong replacing bassist Leslie Langston and producer Dennis Herring helping everyone play nice, Hersh sounds comfortably in charge. Engaged material (“Counting Backwards,” the whooping drum-driven “Golden Thing,” Donelly’s peppy “Not Too Soon”), inventive arrangements and audible concentration in their delivery remedy the aloofness that made Hunkpapa a bland low point in the once-singular quartet’s progress from intriguing artistry to alternapop ordinariness. With Hersh’s folky voice as its main ingredient, the band’s sonic personality is still anemic and dry, but The Real Ramona pumps in enough blood and guts for encouraging signs of life.
Donelly then left the group to Hersh and Narcizo (Abong also resigned, taking a short-term studio assignment from Donelly without actually joining Belly); Langston returned to contribute lyrical bass to Red Heaven but isn’t listed as an official member. Sounding as if some enormous obstacle had been lifted out of Hersh’s way, the self- produced album is a lively, passionate rockfest. Blowing away the Elizabethan wispiness of the previous two outings, she sings out with throaty vibrato and surging confidence (reinforcing the Patti Smith aspect that has always lurked in her larynx), and slashes enthusiastically at her guitar as if she had just discovered the on switch for her distortion pedal. Carried along on big, hearty melodies and the energized delivery, her bizarre thoughtdreams make an impression even when their purpose is far from clear: “I saw him first on Summer Street / He held my breath / A famous face and instant death.” Although the middle of the quizzical “Pearl” surges with electric power, the resonant acoustic folk that begins and ends it (“Hot hands move things / I write on his wall/I have no mind at all”) points the way to Hersh’s solo career, which she began two years later.
If not for that preview, the revelation of Hips and Makers might have been even more dramatic. Hersh’s stately debut is a beautiful album of family, madness and devotion sung with resounding emotional power over the scantiest allotments of acoustic guitar, piano and cello. Like a pre-Raphaelite painting, Hips and Makers is rendered in dusky browns, twilight yellows and muted reds, a deep dive into Hersh’s mind that pulls out anxieties, uncertainties and dislocated bewilderment. “This hairdo’s truly evil / I’m not sure it’s mine,” from “Teeth,” seems whimsical enough, but the quiet ferocity of her determination, rushing ahead of the tempo in “Houdini Blues,” is riveting: “Oh no, don’t put me in that box / You know what you can do with those locks / Bet your life I’ll come crawling out again / You’ll have to deal with me then.” The harrowing edge in her keen makes the first portion of the incalculable “A Loon” extra disturbing; her sudden mid-song switch to a girlish voice brings no relief from the feeling that something is seriously amiss. The diarist’s reflections delivered in the form of “The Letter” send an unnerving current of surrealism flowing through a graceful melody: “Don’t forget that I’m living inside the space where walls and floor meet / There’s a box inside my chest / An animal stuffed with my frustration.” Jane Scarpantoni is the album’s cellist; Michael Stipe ups the ethereal quotient by singing on “Your Ghost”; Lenny Kaye did the exquisitely tasteful co-production.
Following Hips and Makers (and its sidecar, Strings, which contains two new originals, a bluesy Led Zeppelin cover, the album’s “Beestung” and four other songs from it given appealing baroque makeovers with six British string players), Hersh did a solo tour and then returned to Throwing Muses, recording an album with Narcizo and new bassist Bernard Georges the following year. Other than one related song (“Teller”) and Scarpantoni’s presence, University steers away from Hips and Makers, keeping the distinction between her group and solo work clear. That’s ironic: the artistic triumph of Hersh’s solo work now makes it hard to think of Throwing Muses as more than an equally weighted alter-ego to her unaccompanied efforts. In fact, other than the surprising wah-wah workouts, University is of a piece with Red Heaven. Fragmentary lyrics about love, lust and family (while still alluding to troubled mental states: “I have nothing to offer but confusion / And the circus in my head”) are less evocative in competition with full-bodied electric pop, but the active setting frees Hersh to write less ambitious songs that sometimes say as much. “No Way in Hell,” a perplexing self-portrait (“I sleep with one hand on my clothes / I sleep with one hand on my heart / There’s almost nothing left to guard”), evolves into a merry/angry round — something that would have been impossible in the unprotected starkness of her solo record. Having proven that she can keep two plates spinning at the same time, Hersh now has to decide whether she wants to integrate her musical selves or keep them apart.