Please to report that we’re still alive in Hawaii after today’s event. This means I’ll live long enough to finish my ranking of Throwing Muses songs and continue to reveal my ignorance about Kristin Hersh‘s work. Shall we?
10. Ruthie’s Knocking
First Single From Limbo, 1996
Limbo was Throwing Muses last pre-hiatus album and, at the time, we thought it was going to be their last album period. I just want to mention that the album’s cover was done by Love and Rockets (the comic book that inspired the name of the band) writer and artist Gilbert Hernandez. He’s one of my favorite comic book creators. Hmm. Someday, I will rank issues of Love and Rockets but I might rank all of them #1. “Ruthie’s Knocking” features the couplet “Your cats smell better than you do/Her cats are pretty cool.” I promise that’s not why I ranked it this high. I don’t just automatically give songs high rankings if they mention cats (#7). The song is a tight, infectious piece of power pop that is yet another in a series of songs by the band that should have been decent sized modern rock radio hit and if you look at the number one alternative songs in 1996, it would have fit right in. The world isn’t fair to genius.
Single from the 4AD Compilation Lonely is An Eyesore, 1987
“Fish” gave the title to the 4AD compilation album Lonely Is An Eyesore. At the time, Throwing Muses were the most recent band to sign to the label so 4AD was promoting them pretty heavily. The story behind “Fish” is really worth reading – I encourage you to read the summary there at Genius. In brief, it’s about a hand-made Jesus on a crucifix (that looked a little like a fish) which hung in an apartment Hersh crashed in. Knowing this won’t necessarily help you understand the lyrics, but it doesn’t hurt. I love pretty much everything about this song – the military drumming, the Donelly backing vocals, the feeling that Hersh’s vocal is traveling down whatever path she wants it to travel down (even if there’s no path). Its one of their spot-on classics and is also the song that introduced the band to a wider audience.
Third Single From University, 1995
University was critically acclaimed but didn’t sell well, which resulted in Throwing Muses being dropped from their label. Hersch’s singing style has a hint of a country twang to it – that’s part of the appeal to me. On the slinky, subdued “Snakeface,” her voice is featured in the foreground, supported by a minimalist rhythm line and uncharacteristically simple guitar work. It works surprisingly well as I’m reminded of what The Edge says about how he like to treat notes like he only has a limited number to use on any given U2 song. Every sound on this track feels important because there are simply so few of them. Musical tastes are always changing and by the time Throwing Muses released University, the alternative rock explosion of the early 90’s was already waning. Maybe that’s why the album didn’t sell as well as it should have. I’ve never been really good at understanding why some bands hit and other don’t.
Second Single From Limbo, 1996
There’s two great lyrical/vocal hooks on this track – the “spin the shot glass” chorus and the “kiss you/thank me” refrain in the verses. The track takes a bit of a micro-prog rock twist in its final thirty seconds – a thing I find especially appealing. It’s really a shame that the band took a pause after this album because they really seemed to be hitting a groove on this album. I didn’t follow Hersch’s solo career, but every time I listen to Limbo, I think I should. The lyric seems to be about a friendship between Hersh and an unsavory character who she lets crash on her mattress when he runs out of drugs – though sometimes their “bite’s not too bad” and their “barks not too scary.” Anyhow, its my favorite song (and single) from Limbo.
6. Counting Backwards
First Single from The Real Ramona, 1991
The Real Ramona was the final Throwing Muses album to feature Tanya Donelly before she departed to form Belly. It featured new bassist Fred Abong (who left with Donelly) who replaced Leslie Langston (she would return to play on Red Heaven and guested on some Belly tracks). Its one of my favorite albums. I think everything that band had been working on up to this point finally gelled together. Donelly emerged as a songwriting powerhouse (see #3) and the whole band found a comfortable balance between Hersh’s lyrical surrealism, the rhythmic exploration they loved and pop sensibility. While “Counting Backwards” is not my absolute favorite Hersh track on the album (that would be “Graffiti”) it is none-the-less the first of six singles to which I’ve assigned five-stars in my iTunes library – an honor I’m sure the band never expected to receive. The guitar hook is crazy good and it sort of sets the bar for the whole song. Tremendous stuff.
Single from Hunkpapa, 1989
“Dizzy” is one of Throwing Muses best-loved songs and with good reason. If The Real Ramona is the first album on which I think everything really came together for the band from first track to last, “Dizzy” was the blueprint for that album. And here’s the thing – Hersh and the band HATED the song. To quote her:
It was just so stupid. We expected them to get the point and they didn’t at all, they loved it. The music business was awful and it should have died long ago. We hated that song while we were recording it! We didn’t play it on the tour. Like I said, I respect pop music and it shouldn’t suck
Well, there you go. According to that link, it was regarded as “a blatant bid for mainstream acceptance that flopped.” I don’t know what to say about my taste, man. I love the song and that’s yet another thing that throws my taste into question.
4. Sunray Venus
First video from Purgatory/Paradise, 2013
On the other hand, I also love “Sunray Venus,” the first song released in video form from Purgatory/Paradise. The bass just makes me want to close my eyes and move – Bernard Georges joined the band in 1992 and continues to be the band’s secret weapon. He also works as a bicycle shop technician, hopefully by choice because it would be a darn (if sadly predictable) shame if a musician of his caliber wasn’t rewarded with financial security via his playing. Hersh sings “Sunray Venus” (accurate lyrics still under discussion at Hersh Head) with the kind of rage that we’ve come to love and Narcizo’s drumming is, as usual, the aggressive base on which the whole song rests. I can’t stress how much I enjoy this song and its parent album. Do what you must to hear it.
3. Not Too Soon
Second Single From The Real Ramona, 1991
“Not Too Soon” is Tanya Donelly’s great Throwing Muses single. I honestly don’t know why she chose to split after this album. Perhaps it’s because there really wasn’t room for two top-notch songwriters in one band and she wanted to release more of her own songs? Perhaps being in a band with a person you’ve known since school just becomes untenable after a while. Donelly and Hersh play together from time to time now (as I mentioned last entry) so the split was either mutual or reconciled. Anyhow, Donelly’s work with Belly was excellent. Belly released ten singles and perhaps I’ll rank them someday soon. Anyhow, “Not Too Soon” features many of the same qualities that would make Belly a huge success – Donelly’s smooth vocals, a chorus that is pure hook and just a touch of 50’s girl group sensibility at the start of the chorus. I sometimes ponder what Red Heaven, University and Limbo would have sounded like if they’d also had some of Donelly’s songs on them (and Donelly’s harmony vocals and lead guitar) – they’re all three great albums and I’m certainly not saying they’d be better, but I just wonder what could have been.
First Single From Throwing Muses aka Uses, 2003
There’s a touch of hardcore punk in the opening breakdown of “Mercury” (that resolves into a more restrained first verse) which repeats a couple of times in the song to great effect. Tanya Donelly returns to offer a guest backing vocal on this song (a very welcome return) but the current core trio of Throwing Muses is in top form in their own right. This track kicks off the 2003 self-titled album (called USES on Hersh’s site) and announced to the world that a few years hadn’t changed the band’s power or rhythm.
1. Bright Yellow Gun
First Single From University, 1994
“Bright Yellow Gun” isn’t just my favorite song by Throwing Muses, it is in contention for my favorite song of all time. It reached #20 on the Modern Rock Charts and in my mind, it was one of the songs I played most frequently when I was a DJ on KTUH, even though that’s impossible because the song was released in 1994 and I stopped being a regular DJ in 1993. Furthermore, in my headcanon for my real fictional band, Oil in the Alley (actual official page coming eventually), Throwing Muses were a huge, successful band and our main competitors for dominance of the fictional Oil-i-verse chart (the concept of Oil in the Alley is that we were a big, enormous rock band in the late 80’s and early 90’s, the exact time that Throwing Muses were first active). This is the song that made my character go temporarily mad (like fictional Salieri in Amadeus) because he realized he’d never write anything as good.
Back in the real world, “Bright Yellow Gun” is an amazing song for a dozen or so reasons. The main one that I want to point out is how Donelly employs her guitar during the verses and choruses. If you follow along with the video, you’ll note she completely changes the lead guitar line at :24, :50, :57, 1:04, 1:18 (which is a return to the opening line), 1:25 (for the solo), 1:40 (and what sounds like a tambourine is added) for the final verse, 2:50 for the solo that closes the song. If you’re not paying attention, the fact that the vocal melody is pretty straightforward almost disguises the multiple shifts in guitar. Georges’ bass line is also a thing of beauty – he pins down the song with this great jazzy scale that lets the guitar do what-the-heck ever. And, of course, Narciso’s drumming is powerfully on point. Watch them play it live (without the great guitar shifts but with more than enough virtuosity and furor to make up for it). I also love how this song starts with Hersh’s vocal – that’s the sort of thing that makes me swoon.
Every time I listen to this song, I shake my head in disappointment that the music public or industry or whomever didn’t make this song the biggest alternative hit of 1994. I blame the use of chimps in the video.
Coming Soon: Over 140 singles by David Fracken Bowie.