Throwing Muses – S/T

As Boston indie-rock comebacks go, the resurrection of the Throwing Muses is second only to the return of Evan Dando’s floppy fringe. Since the band amicably split in 1997 – citing the crippling strain of financial problems instead of personal or musical divisions – the prospects for reformation seemed pretty limited. After all, this was a band that had helped to shape the modern American alternative rock landscape in the late-80s, only to reach the late-90s struggling to pay their rent as well as their studio bills. Reconciled to amicable separation, drummer David Narcizo has busied himself running a graphic design business and latter-day bassist Bernard Georges has been settled into a day-job, leaving singing-songwriting-guitarist Kristin Hersh to forge ahead releasing solo records almost as often as she has babies.
Yet where there’s a will to resuscitate a glorious past life, there’s always a way forward. So, if every other cash-strapped rock trio can manage to record an album in three weekends, then why the hell can’t the Throwing Muses? And if once estranged co-founding Muses member Tanya Donelly (also of Belly/solo fame) happens to be visiting the neighbourhood on those particular weekends, what’s to stop her from singing a few choice backing vocals? Absolutely nuthin’ – she is family after all (Hersh’s stepsister to be precise). However, whilst the very thought of the Muses family being reunited in the same recording bunker is exciting enough, we still need to judge this comeback on its own terms, not be swept away by nostalgia-tinted emotion.
From the manic battle cry of “Mercury” inwards, one thing becomes abundantly clear – this is a Muses album like no other. With Hersh hollering like PJ Harvey after a razor blade cocktail, with the serrated guitars swerving between the speakers like jack-knifing roller coasters and with Narcizo’s drums clattering and splattering in military time signatures, it’s doubtful you’ll ever hear a heavier and more musically punishing Muses album. As the Donelly-augmented trio tear through 12 torrid songs like a drag-strip racer with an amphetamine-fuelled death wish and as the barbarous production pulls punches that even Steve Albini might duck to avoid, Hersh’s aim to make a “quick and dirty record” certainly hasn’t been balked at. In fact, tracks like The Black Sabbath-soaked “Speed and Sleep” and the titanium drum-thudding “Epiphany” will leave those who fell in love with the well-tempered tones of the Muses’ mellowed last album – 1996’s Limbo – running for the hills.
This is an album that’s tough to love but impossible to ignore. Things work especially well when soaring melodies somehow manage to sail through the savage sonic tides, thanks in no small-part to Donelly’s backing vocal elevations, best evidenced on “Civil Disobedience” and “Half Blast.” Riding Bernard’s brutal bass line like a rodeo bull, on the former song, Donelly and Hersh’s intuitively intertwined vocals deliver a celebratory call to sisters-in-arms: “And the times never change / I’m running out of days / And we can always run away / And you can always run away with me.” “Half Blast” is a slower burner, but when the point of ignition comes it’s an incendiary broiling beast of a song that documents the timeless tussle between home-life security and hormone-fuelled hunger for new excitement; “Love is half blast and half burden” as Hersh declares. It’s that hunger that pervades many of the better songs here, notably the frisky “Los Flamingos” (“I want all you never had”) and the plutonium-powered “Pandora’s Box.” It’s comforting to know that although Hersh, Donelly, and Narcizo have nearly a football team’s worth of offspring underneath their feet, they can still summon up the youthful vigour that possessed them to make music against all the odds in the first place.
However, there are pitfalls and troughs that the band trip into. The fixed no-frills studio aesthetic does prove to be counterproductive on occasion, particularly in the sluggish centre-section of the album, where raw riffage leads to repetitious and fuzzily focused arrangements. As lovely and welcome as Donelly’s contributions are, at times her presence feels a little too tokenistic. The sparring guitar-lines and surrealist pop imagery that characterised her best contributions to past Muses masterpieces like 1990’s Hunkpapa and 1991’s The Real Ramona are sorely missed amongst the rigid Hersh-driven formatting of this long-player. Furthermore, even though Hersh has proclaimed that the band’s lack of pre-rehearsals made for a more spontaneous set, it has somewhat stifled the intricate songs-within-songs structures that made older Muses glories sound so head spinning. Inciting the conclusion that a little more pre-strategizing may not have been so bad for this renewed battle plan.
Qualms aside though, this is still a welcome return to the fray from a much-missed and much-loved band. This certainly isn’t the best Muses album, and if it were to be the finale curtain call we might be left to live with an awkward and messy memory. But as a stepping-stone into a new chapter in the Throwing Muses’ compulsively ordained career, it comes with the burning promise of an awesome reawakening just a little further down the line.