Seminal indie-band, Throwing Muses pioneered an angular guitar-sound in the late ‘80s that paved the way for bands like the Pixies and ultimately the ‘90s Grunge movement, Nirvana and Courtney Love. But they never seemed to have received the mainstream breakout success that the others did and have remained one of the most under-rated bands.
Thankfully, this has not stopped the band from putting out new music. Supporting their latest album, “Purgatory/Paradise” – their first in a decade, Throwing Muses gave a return-to-form performance during Noise Pop 2014. Held on Friday, Feb 28 at the Jewish Community Center, the venue was pretty packed despite the weather forecast for storms.
Coming in from the drizzle were middle-aged die-hards as well as younger hipster sorts. Some elderly JCC members which I thought may leave after they heard the kind of music being played, also stayed through to the end of the encore which seemed pretty impressive for the bands (Mark Eitzel was the opening act) as well as their audience.
Fronted by lead singer and guitarist, Kristin Hersh; accompanied by drummer, David Narcizo whom Hersh has known since she was 8; and bassist, Bernard Georges who joined in 1992 for the fifth album “Red Heaven”- it is to their credit that they are still a tight-knit bunch. Even Hersh’s stepsister, Tanya Donelly who has her own band, Belly still records and performs with the Throwing Muses. I am seriously envious of those with tickets to the later dates on their current tour which will see Donelly join with the trio on stage!
When I was in University, Throwing Muses was what the alternative kids with their henna-hair and hemp bags listened to. I was busy with largely Top 40 fodder from Mariah Carey to TLC and Toad the Wet Sprocket. But your undergraduate years are to experiment and broaden your tastes so as I took in Tori Amos and James, it didn’t take too long to get into Muses’ tracks like “Dizzy”, “Counting Backwards”, “Not Too Soon” and “Bright Yellow Gun”. Later I would discover the 4AD label and learn of the mental illness that plagued Kristin Hersh.
The mental illness is interesting to me not as a romantic notion linked to creative genius but rather how she pulls through it on a daily basis, as someone who has lived in close proximity to a family member that succumbed to the illness. And how Hersh has managed to raise four children while still write as prolifically as she has. Apart from her output with The Muses - there have been acoustic solo albums; her other band, 50 Foot Wave; and a self-written memoir, "Rat Girl" based on her diary when she was an 18-year-old and experiencing a particularly challenging year in her life.
What’s more, here she is onstage tonight, performing new songs like the rock star that she is. Her blonde hair dyed black, she is older, probably wiser but without losing an inch of that edge that she’s always had in spades. She didn't need to drink that Kool-Aid, her lyrical voice is a unique one, fragile and gentle and fans still yearn for.
In fact with age, her vocals seems to have cracked like glass. Giving her whispers a raspiness, and her scowls and shrieks, a deeper, layered resonance. “Glass Cats” from the new album functions as a warm-up, and when it ends she greets the audience and tells us of the great t-shirts at the Merch stand saying, “ We sign anything as long as it’s not too sweaty.”
Next comes the memorable “Sunray Venus” one of the more upbeat tracks on the album. It’s a reference to the sea-shells that wash up on the beach near her Rhode Island home. The song gets everyone rev-ed and is greeted with a rousing applause when it ends.
With “Freesia” she adopts that familiar groove of the neck like an Indian diety swept by the melody. Listening to the tune cold and catching snippets of lyrics like "...what’s the matter/don’t you like the way it all went down,” makes you want to pore over lyrics with a fine-tooth comb. Read the backstory.
And you can! This crowd-funded album was released with a compendium book published by Harper Collins filled with photographs, lyrics and artwork by Narcizo. Hersh has even written an essay for each song featured. It's that same gratification you got in those halcyon days of vinyls or to a lesser extent, CDs when you were compelled to listen to an album in its entirety.
Before “Static” she checks with her band that it starts with “…an ‘F’ right? Because E minor sucks.” Then says to audience “If you have enough gum to share with the class, please don’t. Because we can hear it.” It’s kinda wacky.
“Static” is nothing but in flux. It starts slow but moves fast with the deep bass and driving drums culminating in a wild howl by Hersh as she stared dead straight and glassy-eyed, far-away into the audience. It also brought to mind another tortured soul, Kurt Cobain.
Now that the seed was planted these next songs – “Sleepwalking”, “Dripping Trees” and “Opiates” kept that ghost of Cobain in the air for me. It’s different in each song, be it the howl on “Static” or something in the low-register guitar, downbeat melody and somnambulist themes of the others.
In the past, Hersh has spoken about feeling 'wretched' from her bi-polar disorder and all that surrounds it. A serious accident she had as a 16 year old on a bike when a car hit her, had caused her to hear music when she awoke in the hospital. It very quickly proved itself as much a curse, as a gift to her. "The disease is far more dangerous than the music is valuable," she has said, having suffered a suicide attempt, mania and depression.
She has spoken about wanting to turn her music into something beautiful, nonetheless. And her fans will attest that she has. In “Opiates” she illustrates the sting of mental illness ‘That’s no way to bring your body down” but the melody which alternates jangly and driven, with slow and haunting is lovely and equally addictive.
Then she has an exchange with drummer Narcizo and says, “I just found out that he ties his shoelace with bunny years.” A disparaging remark that can only be said by someone who you have known a lifetime. She adds, “But at least he dresses well. That's a nice t-shirt, can I sign it? How sweaty is it?”
The trio are tight. And fiercely loyal. Both Narcizo and Georges have less glamorous day jobs when they are not touring with Hersh. Georges who has a sexy way with the bass, still works in a bicycle shop to this day. Narcizo whose complex style of drumming keeps crashing cymbals to a minimum, seems happy to keep himself occupied with his graphic design business till Hersh is ready to record or tour. In a Rolling Stone interview from 1995, Narcizo said: "I definitely care more about what happens to Kristin than what happens to the band."
When their set comes to a close, it doesn’t take long before Georges steps back on stage for the encore. Fan favorite, “Bright Yellow Gun” from their popular 1995 album “University” gets everyone buzzed and guaranteed to leave the venue with happy memories. And if they haven't yet to purchase the new album.
Before closing with “Pearl” another favorite from their “Red Heaven” album, Hersh says her farewell and adds: “You know it's stopped raining and safe to go outside.” More importantly it is safe to stay inside. Whatever her muses and demons, Hersh and her bandmates have put on an awesome performance and succeeded in turning the ‘wretched into something beautiful’. And now she even offers to hang around, take photos and sign t-shirts… if they’re not too sweaty of course.
To buy the album, "Purgatory/Paradise" please click here. To find out more about Kristin Hersh's crowd-funded initiative and how to be a Strange Angel with access to music and free concerts, please click here.
01 Glass Cats
02 Sunray Venus
06 Dripping Trees
08 Mississippi Kite
10 Smokey Hands
11 Cherry Candy
12 Lazy Eye
16 Glass Cats (reprise)
17 You Cage
18 Devil's Roof
20 Red Shoes
22 Bright Yellow Gun