Saturday, February 25, 2012
Throwing Muses - Throwing Muses
I recently read Kristin Hersh's memoir "Rat Girl." What an amazing book, perhaps the best rock book I've ever read, she is a very talented writer. The book recounts a year of her life when she was 18 and ends with the recording of this album. In the course of the book, she is homeless, goes crazy, attempts suicide, gets pregnant, moves with Throwing Muses from Rhode Island to Boston and finally signs with 4AD after a bunch of weird trans-Atlantic phone calls with label head, Ivo Watts-Russell. In between she hangs out a lot with the old Hollywood actress Betty Hutton. When I compare her life with mine at 18, we might as well be from different planets. I found the book absolutely riveting. She also writes about her music quite a bit, the strange impulses that drive her creatively and provides anecdotes about the origins of some of her lyrics. She describes the irrational forces that generate her music and seems puzzled that people like her music so much. Listening to her descriptions you'd think she was describing Throbbing Gristle rather than Throwing Muses. I've never found the Muses' music particularly weird or inaccessible, but having read her book it now seems much darker and mysterious to me. I'm never going to be able to listen to this album again without thinking about the drama and the trauma that gave birth to it. "Call Me" gets the album off to a rousing start. Hersh sings, stutters, bleats and shrieks her way through the hard driving song which is full of energy and then slows down at the end to a more stately pace, the opposite approach of most rock songs which more typically start slow and build in energy. The lyrics are full of dissatisfaction and when she describes her insomnia, unhappiness and loneliness I start flashing back to the incidents in her book. It is followed by "Green," a love song by her bandmate and stepsister Tanya Donelly. It is sung by Donelly who has a gentler voice than Hersh and the music is a bit poppier than Hersh's songs although the lyrics are in a similar personal and poetic style. "Hate My Way" is driven by David Narcizo's martial drumming and Hersh's agonized vocals as she describes suicidal feelings and self-loathing. It is one of the most powerful songs on the album and listening to it I instantly connect back to her mental illness in the book. It seems like such a dark song, but in the book she explains the origin of the song in a humorous manner. She was accosted by a militant atheist distributing pamphlets, practically the entire first verse is based on his ranting. She makes it seem goofy, but the remainder of the song I think is based on her feelings and even knowing its bizarre origin, there is no denying the misery expressed by her words. The amazing "Vicky's Box" is next. There is a funny section in "Rat Girl" where the album's producer Gil Norton asks Hersh about the meaning of this song and he is gobsmacked when she replies that she had a roommate named Vicky who painted stuff on a box and that is the origin of the song. Norton keeps trying to interpret the song and Hersh tells him not to pay attention to the lyrics anymore, that she doesn't know what they mean. Hersh's description of her creative process suggests that the songs come from a dark part of her, "evil Kristin" is how she puts it, that is disconnected from her normal self, her description of her songwriting almost makes it sound schizophrenic. I can't explain the song either, there is a torrent of stunning poetic imagery describing alienation and desperation that is clearly related to some of the events of the book, but the ultimate meaning of the song eludes me. I do love it though, it is a killer song with a funky bass riff and slashing guitar chords backing a ferocious Hersh vocal. "Rabbits Dying" starts quiet and slow and then tears it up rockabilly style. Shifts in dynamics are so much a part of Hersh's style, I wonder how much the Muses may have influenced the Pixies who became famous for that and who knew and played with the Muses in their formative years. The lyrics recount the last moments of a dying rabbit. It is tempting to think of this as some sort of metaphor, but Hersh is so obsessed with animals in the book that I suspect that it really is about a rabbit. Side two begins with "America (She Can't Say No)" which is another enigmatic song full of surreal and disturbing imagery. I believe it refers to her mental breakdown, there is a lot of stuff similar to the events in her book particularly her recurrent hallucination about a snake she is carrying around. It may be fueled by mental illness but it is still a brilliant song. In contrast to the dark subject matter, the music is perky and fun. It has a country feel to it laid on top of a bouncy new wave beat, sort of like a blend of the Talking Heads and the Blasters. “Fear” brings some more anxiety and tension as well as references to running away which appears in several of the songs of the album. Curiously, fear is actually a sensation that is largely lacking in “Rat Girl.” Hersh faces events and experiences that would frighten me and yet remains placid and unperturbed in the face of them. The music is taut with an insistent riff and some Television-like guitar interplay. “Stand Up” explores another emotion lacking in “Rat Girl,” namely jealousy. She comes across as such a sweet person in the book that the rage in this song seems out of character, another manifestation of “evil Kristin” perhaps. The music has more of a groove to it than most of the songs on the record although it has its spiky passages as well. “Soul Soldier” is Hersh’s version of a love song, arguably her most normal song on the album if you overlook the knife references (which make me think of her suicide attempt.) I have no idea what an “apple run to heaven” means, just another one of those great surreal lines that she drops so effortlessly. Despite the romantic character of the lyrics, the music is jerky and frenetic and Hersh hoarsely bellows out the words. Then halfway into the song the music abruptly slows down and becomes sedate, almost slinky. The final half of the song swerves back and forth between the two styles of music. “Delicate Cutters” is another fascinating song, I just can’t get over that Hersh was only a teen when she wrote it. It seems directly inspired by her mental illness and I assume her suicide attempt. The lyrics are staggeringly powerful, wherever they came from, they are a work of genius. The music is quieter, more acoustic, but still quite dark and Hersh howls and wails her way through the song with scary intensity. This is a terrific album, one of the best and most startling debut albums of its era. Kristin Hersh is a remarkable talent, a true original. Her music is honest and personal, yet creative and poetic. I can't say that I understand where it comes from, her musical drive seems as much a curse as it is a gift. It haunts her like a ghost, she hears voices in her head and sees the colors of the music, that fascinates me, but it doesn't seem very pleasant. In the book she describes being nauseated by the process of creation and it keeps her tense and sleepless until the song is finally finished. I felt sorry for her reading her description of it and it makes me all the more appreciative that she shares her creations with us. Recommended to people who think it would be cool if the Pixies jammed with Sleater Kinney.