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I first encountered Newport, Rhode Island’s own Throwing Muses (rightly called “one of the finest college rock bands of the 80’s”) as a DJ at WRBC, Bates College, and I remember finding them impenetrable at the time. I don’t know which of their songs I first heard (though I know it must have been something from either their self-titled 1986 début album or something from their 1988 album House Tornado) but I remember it seeming like a psychedelic swirl of noise and word. There’s literally no song in their catalog that genuinely sounds like that so I honestly have no idea what made me react like that. The closest singles I can find from that period that fits description are probably “Saving Grace” and “Fish,” but those merely features some tempo shifts and overlapping vocals. I was 20 when those songs came out. Maybe they sounded alien at the time but in the years since their sound has become commonplace enough that I can’t tell why it ever sounded alien.
The two longest-term members of Throwing Muses are lead singer/guitarist/songwriter Kristin Hersh and drummer Dave Narcizo. Hersh founded the band in 1981 with her stepsister Tanya Donelly (another pivotal band member who also sang, played guitar and wrote songs through 1991 before leaving to form Belly and work with The Breeders). Hersh and Donelly have fairly different music aesthetics (which we’ll explore in the individual song entries) so it’s not entirely surprising that they eventually chose to go down different paths. Donelly still occasional performs with Throwing Muses (and with Hersh) so I’m guessing there’s not any long-term bad blood. Bass player Bernard Georges joined in 1992 and continues to play with the band (and Hersh’s other band, 50FootWave) to this day.
You can find a ton of great information about Kristin Hersh at Hersh Head, by the way.
As always, songs have been ranked based on the basis of “do I like this song more than the prior song?” Throwing Muses never really released a single that I don’t like, so I can vouch for pretty much all of these tunes. If you’ve never heard the band before and dig strong songwriting and alternative rock, I strongly encourage you to check them out.
21. The River
Second Single from House Tornado, 1988
As I wrote in the intro, Throwing Muses don’t really exactly have any lousy songs or singles so don’t assume that this song’s last place ranking suggests it isn’t worth your time. “The River” opens with a great foreboding minimalist section (and returns to that at the end) before the whole band kicks in (an effect that I almost always love). “The River” was one of Tanya Donelly’s two songwriting contributions to House Tornado. Donelly’s songs tend to be well written, tight power pop songs – like her later excellent work with Belly (for example). This track is a bit more in the style of the rest of the Throwing Muses late 80’s alternative rock oeuvre. It’s fine but I feel like Donelly hadn’t quite yet figured out her own identity as a songwriter (in my opinion, she’d nail it by the next album).
20. Soul Soldier
First Single from Throwing Muses, 1986
Before the band released a formal album, they’d had a number one college radio hit with “Sinkhole” (live version by Hersh and Donelly) written by Hersh’s father. That song was from a 1985 self-released cassette called Throwing Muses or sometimes The Doghouse Cassette. I can’t find a the Throwing Muses version of that song online or it would be included in this list. I’ve never heard it and would love to find a copy some day.
Throwing Muses’ first recording line-up featured Hersh, Donelly, Narcizo and bass player Leslie Langston. “Soul Soldier” was the band’s debut single by this line-up from their debut album on London’s 4AD label (home to Bauhaus, The Cocteau Twins and The Pixies among others). When Narcizo was learning drums (he didn’t know how to play before joining the band), he worked with a kit with no cymbals so you’ll note this track (and many of the bands tracks) features no metal percussion. “Soul Soldier” shows off all of this iteration of the band’s strengths – Hersh’s anxious lyrics and vocals, Donelly’s harmonies and guitar work and the bold rhythm work of Langston and Narcizo. The band is well-known for employing tempo shifts (they’re almost an alternative prog rock band) and there’s a couple of very effective ones in this piece. It lacks some of the tight focus of later Throwing Muses work but it’s still a very appealing song.
Video from House Tornado, 1988
At about :20 seconds in on that video, “Juno” shifts to this amazing brief Donelly/Hersh harmony that is just gorgeous and perfect. While I can find no evidence that this song was ever released as a single, this video was made and apparently aired on 120 Minutes. On their most recent album (Purgatory/Paradise), many of the 30 or so songs are in the two-minute long-range, but it was unusual for a song of that length to get much airplay back in ’88 simply because it required we college DJs to have the next song ready really, really quickly. I almost never allowed any dead air to go out over the airwaves, but when I did it was almost always because I overestimated the length of a track. The best case scenario, when that happened, would be that I’d play two songs in a row from the same album. The worst case is I’d turn on the microphone and talk about the song while desperately trying to grab a cart so I could play a 60 or 90 second PSA or promotional spot and fill up some time while I queued up some random song. Pro-tip for 80’s era DJs – have a few records ready to go at any time so you don’t panic and leave dead air. Anyhow, “Juno.” Good song. I’ve been careful not to spell it Juon.
18. Clark’s Nutcracker
Second Video from Purgatory/Paradise, 2013
Really and honestly, if you’re a Throwing Muses fan and you’ve not downloaded Purgatory/Paradise, you should do yourself a favor and do it now. Ideally, you should get it with the accompanying book. I did not and I regret it. Hersh is an excellent writer (her memoir Rat Girl is one of the finest rock autobiographies out there) and drummer Narcizo is a talented professional graphic designer so the book is apparently a great insight into the creative process. Even if you just download the songs (got my copy from iTunes), you’ll be pretty impressed with how great Hersh, Narcizo and Georges still sound. Hersh has written and spoken about how songs are almost inflicted upon her rather than a product of her will. This album, in toto, is a really powerful reflection of that. Two videos were released to promote the album – the first is at or near the top of this list. “Clark’s Nutcracker” is a delightful rock/folk song about a bird that is, according to Hersh’s notes, “is not wealthy or famous or attention-seeking and yet it sure seems more important than a lot of the crap we humans pay attention to.” It’s a gentle folk-rockish song that won’t necessarily stick in your head the first few times you listen to but that you’ll welcome whenever it comes up on shuffle.
Second Single From University, 1995
University was one of the last new albums I purchased before I entered a period with very little exposure to new music. I’d stopped doing radio around 1993 after years of complaints from my then-girlfriend. Within a year, she’d broken up with me and I was no longer a DJ. It’s like an o henry story but boring. I went into a sort of musical dark ages period from around ’94 through the dawn of music streaming/sharing on the Internet. As a college DJ, I’d had the luxury of being able to sample tracks for hundreds of new albums every year – many of those albums weren’t available at local record stores. I made dozens and dozens of mix tapes from albums at WRBC and KTUH from 1985 through 1993 and was very up to date with a huge variety of artists from a variety of genres.
After 1993, most of my music exposure during that time was via various Honolulu alternative music stations or MTV. I probably became aware of University because of the latter. Anyhow, because of where it fell in my music fandom, University has always sort of felt like the last album of my youth. I thought I was doomed to be one of those old dudes locked into the music of my young adulthood for all time but thanks to the internet, I ! Instead one of those old dudes who struggles to stay relevant instead (but I’m losing my edge).
“Shimmer” is a mid-tempo rocker built around a really catchy Kristin Hersh guitar hook. Everything about it is tight and well-played and if I rank it a little lower it’s just because my bar for Throwing Muses songs is more like “mind-blowing” and less like “really quite excellent.” I’d like to call attention to the fact that Narcizo seems to be employing a tambourine or some other similar source for metal percussion on this track which is unusual for the Throwing Muses.
Third Single From Limbo, 1996
Since I’d lost touch with most new music by 1996, I did not know this album had come out until the last ten years maybe when I was trying to rebuild my music collection in digital form. Throwing Muses broke up for a time after the release of Limbo and, since there’s not a lot of information about this online, I’m assuming this was because of the typical combination of diminishing (or stalling) success (this was their first album on a new label after being dropped by their previous label) and aging band members wanting more sustainable careers. The band reunited in the early 21st century and recorded an excellent new album, but we’ll get to that. “Freeloader” is a catchy single with a couple of great little rhythmic elements – I particularly like the short runs of ascending notes that punctuate the choruses. I kept wanting to rank this song higher but I really like the other songs even more.
15. Carnival Wig
“Flexi” Single from Red Heaven, 1992
Red Heaven was the first album Throwing Muses released after the departure of Tanya Donelly. Reduced to a duo of Hersh and longtime drummer David Narcizo, Throwing Muses recruited former bass player Leslie Langston for one more album. Really, it’s one of their best, hardest rocking albums and there are at least three other songs that could have (in my opinion) been singles. “Carnival Wig” was released a “flexi” single in Reflex magazine. It’s a terrific tune that contrasts some low volume, minimalist sections with some rocking, loud sections. Thee soft/loud thing was a signature of The Pixies sound (made mainstream by Nirvana), but Throwing Muses (as we’ve discussed) were also early adopted of tempo and volume shifts. This song has always sounded to me like it should be the closing music for a movie.
14. Saving Grace
First Single From House Tornado, 1988
One of the most compelling things about Throwing Muses’ work in general and Kristin Hersh’s songwriting in particular is their approach to meter vis-a-vis a verse-chorus-Bridge structure. Their songs often feature student shifts in tempo and mood that must be both challenging and fun to play. For example, in “Saving Grace” after the first chorus, they shift suddenly from a fast tempo to a slower tempo for several bars before kicking it up again. The shifts are both musically compelling on their own and typically reflect the emotional content of the lyrics. As I mentioned before, I think this might have been the song that made me think this band was inscrutable in 1988 but now I find the song extremely compelling. I was really into alternative rock that had a bit of southern flavor in the late 80’s (see R.E.M. or Guadalcanal Diary or Lone Justice) and this song really should have been automatically made it into heavy rotation on my shows for that reason, but I sadly didn’t really get into Throwing Muses for another album or two. Drat!
13. Fall Down
“Flexi” Single from Hunkpapa, 1989
This was a double A-side flexi-disc release with “Child of the Moon” by Band of Susans from the British music magazine The Catalogue.
Hunkpapa is arguably the band’s least loved album despite the presence of some great songs. Its a little less musically experimental than their previous records and, thus, a little more generic. Neither of Tanya Donelly’s songs from this album (the excellent “Angel” and “Dragonhead”) were released as singles – a shame because she really came into her own as a writer on this album. Hersh’s “Fall Down” suffers from over-production (I think the band sounds better with a more natural sound) but the song is catchy and the lyric is pretty compelling so, overall, a win.
First single from Red Heaven, 1992
Hersh is one of the greats unsung (or certainly under-sung) guitar heroes of the alternative rock era and her solos on this track demonstrate this nicely. “Firepile” is a catchy-as-hell country-tinged alternative rock song that’s a little more on the traditional rock song side of the experimental scale. Narcizo and returning bassist Langston provide a solid backbeat, but Hersh’s guitar is (as I wrote) the real star here.
Second Single from Throwing Muses, 2003
Throwing Muses regrouped in 2003 to record an excellent, hard rocking self-titled comeback album (or album titled Uses according to Hersh’s website). If you missed this album when it came out and like the band, I can’t recommend it enough. “Portia” both embraces the band’s classic use of rhythm and volume shifts and also a richer production palette than they’d used on their earlier songs. The tracks on Throwing Muses/Uses really all sound huge and rich – my first thought when I heard it was that they’d been influenced by Sleater/Kinney. I’m going to guess that the truth is they influenced that band and were influenced in return. Hersh’s phrasing on this lyric is tight – the choruses make me want to dance so just be glad you’re not around right now when I’m listening to it. My cats are distressed at my attempts at slick moves. Oh! The Portia in the title is the Portia spider.
Coming Soon: You might need a little poison.