Tuesday, April 28, 2009

April 28: Throwing Muses, "Throwing Muses"

Artist: Throwing Muses
Album: Throwing Muses
Year: 1986
Label: 4AD

While Athens, GA and Seattle, WA receive a vast majority of the credit for the "alternative" music explosion of the early and mid-1980's, one of the most amazing and important bands of this movement were making their mark from Newport, RI. Bringing a far more stark and somewhat haunting mood to their music, along with unorthodox musical and percussive progressions, Throwing Muses remain one of the most influential bands of the last thirty years. The bands' most powerful lineup only lasted until 1992, but the music they created in this time is nothing short of phenomenal. Though the rest of their catalog is not to be ignored, Throwing Muses' self-titled 1986 debut is a landmark record in both musical and stylistic content.

The album itself is now often referred to as Untitled, since the current lineup of the group released a formally "self titled" album in 2003. However, for the sake of this post, I will refer to the album as a self-titled effort. Throwing Muses were the first American band to be released by the world renowned 4AD label. The label, whose alumni include the likes of The Pixies, The Birthday Party, and Bauhaus signed a majority of their US-based acts on their relationship with Throwing Muses, and it serves as a testament to the amazing talent found within band. At the core of the group are dual-vocalists and guitarists, step-sisters Kristin Hersh and Tonya Donelly. Though tensions would eventually lead to Donelly leaving the group (she would go on to play with The Breeders before forming Belly), the four albums the pair helped create are all nothing short of genius.

Pulling influence from the jerky, punk style, combining it with beautiful folky melodies, and capping it off with stark, tortured lyrics, Throwing Muses is truly like no other album ever. Shifting tempos, purposefully minimal of use of cymbals, and wild mood swings within songs form the trademark sound of Throwing Muses. The music runs the gamut from the acoustically based, jolting "Stand Up" to the anthemic "America (She Can't Say No)," to the melodious "Vicky's Box." The music often turns on a dime, and these contrasts of tension and release remain among the most impressive ever recorded. The unconventional drumming of Dave Narcizo and uncredited basswork of Leslie Langston (seriously, she's never mentioned anywhere in the liner notes) provides the ideal rhythm backing to the work of Hersh and Donelly. Narcizo's drumming is often reminiscent of the sparse, gloomy moods of Joy Division, yet he is equally capable of drumming at breakneck speeds, often with the same song. As a band, the four musicians create heavy, complex musical landscapes, often teeming with an undeniable feeling of anguish.

One of the most distinctive aspects of the music of Throwing Muses is the shared vocals of Hersh and Donelly. Even at times when Hersh's vocals are too fast or otherwise lost in the music, the emotion behind the words is always clear, and she is clearly one of the most distressed and tortured artists in music history. Many of the lyrics on Throwing Muses are somber, elegiac, self-revealing tales of Hersh's own battles with mental illness and her vocal delivery is often uncomfortably honest and gloomy. The juxtaposition between Hersh's jarring, sung-spoken delivery and Donelly's sweet, ethereal voice gives the album great depth. The most clear example of just how much diversity lies between their style is can be clearly heard between Throwing Muses' first two songs. The opener, "Call Me," presents everything that makes the band great, with a sonic explosion being capped off my Hersh's aggressive, almost rapped lyrics. The song also gives a brilliant example of the stylistic and mood shifts that make Hersh's vocal delivery so unique. Following "Call Me" is Donelly's only writing credit on the record, the soft, dark "Green." While it is clear that the band did their best to make Donelly's song fit in with the rest of the album (all written by Hersh), the song makes it clear that Donelly's style, both in content and delivery, is far more accessible, and this would become more obvious as Throwing Muses' career continued.

The post-punk movement of the 1980's produced some of the most original and innovative bands in music history. When the avant or "alternative" music scene began to move out from the underground, bands like Sonic Youth and R.E.M. garnered a vast majority of the attention and credit. However, the lasting impact of bands like Throwing Muses simply cannot be denied. Fluidly mixing the aesthetics of the punk and folk genres, Throwing Muses created some of the most imaginative and ingenious music ever. The dark, soul-revealing lyrics of Kristin Hersh, and her brilliantly paired vocals with Tonya Donelly still stand as some of the most creative and overall finest singing around. Using wild sound samples, radical approaches to drumming, and creating some of the most bleak, angst ridden music ever, Throwing Muses still stands as one of the most daring creative endeavors to ever be recorded.

Standout tracks: "Green," "Hate My Way," and "America (She Can't Say No)."

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