Since 1986, under the banners of Throwing Muses, her own name, and 50 Foot Wave, Kristin Hersh has released some 20 albums. And what with bipolar disorder, a lost custody battle for her first-born son, a dissolving band, and in her own way overcoming the unhappy beast that is the music industry, Hersh has weathered a lot. The frenetic use of loops, cowbells, shifting time signatures and frantic, dark, unsettling stream-of-consciousness poetry of Throwing Muses’ untitled debut still inspires shock and awe, and throughout her career Hersh has delivered several other albums that are no less astounding.
Mercurial in the extreme, each of Hersh’s guises has a distinct personality, and in her longstanding concerns as lead Muse and a solo artist, these personalities have themselves matured. Hersh is frequently a challenging artist, viewed by many as an acquired taste. Her style may not be immediately everybody’s cup of tea, but perseverance is recommended. All her work retains certain traits – oblique lyrics, a Proustian gift for evocation, and highly skilled but understated musicianship – and the catalogue we’re about to delve into really does offer something for every music fan.
The Real Ramona was the last Throwing Muses album to be recorded as a four-piece, as Fred Abong – himself a replacement for long-term bassist Leslie Langston – would subsequently leave with Hersh’s half-sister Tanya Donelly (who was concurrently recording with Kim Deal in The Breeders) to form Belly. With me so far? Whether it was the sense of something falling apart, expectation that the group would breakthrough as US indie entered its heyday, or simply a group of enormous potential turning their hand to pop that inspired this record, who knows. But The Real Ramona is one of the more unsung gems of its era. Catchy and accomplished yet idiosyncratic and stylish, this is a great way in for any nascent explorer of the Muses. Standout tracks include the atmospheric dream-pop of ‘Graffiti’, the soaring Donelly-penned ‘Not Too Soon’, and the closing ‘Two Step’, a poignant coda to the (first) Hersh–Donelly partnership.
This album changed my life, and it should have changed the world. Although Tori, Björk and PJ were reclaiming credibility for female artists, their efforts were frequently, erroneously dismissed as being at best kooky and at worst hysterical. But no one could deny that Hips & Makers was a heartrendingly beautiful album, deftly written and played. By turns funny, sardonic, cute and terrifying, this collection of songs investigates themes of love, loss, mental disorder, sex and loneliness. Musically cocking a hat to Appalachian folk, the simple but moving guitar-and-string arrangements allow Hersh’s expressive voice and subtle poetry to weave magic. It’s actually a surprisingly great singalong album: why not scream your way through ‘Me & My Charms’ and ‘Close Your Eyes’, purr along to ‘Velvet Days’, whoop to ‘A Loon’, and practice your folk singing on a superlative version of traditional favourite ‘Cuckoo’? Like I said, something for everyone.
Fifty feet is apparently the wavelength of the lowest note – an F – that most humans can hear, although mostly you probably feel it, churning your bowels about. The F in this case almost certainly stands for ‘fuck you’. Loud, brash, upfront and in your face, Hersh’s post-Muses trio – Hersh, drummer Rob Ahlers and late-period Muses bassist Bernard Georges – set out to be a touring concern releasing 6-song EPs every 9 months or so. This business plan changed in 2005 when they released this full-length album. Eleven tracks of thrash rock, jackhammer drumming, bass that could be used to restart a whale’s heartbeat, screaming guitars and lumberyard vocals, Golden Ocean is not for the fainthearted. Although it’s best appreciated live in a sweaty heaving venue, turn it up loud at home and the soundwaves will give you moshpit bruises on their own. It’s the aural equivalent of having your lover beat you with a leg of honey-roast ham…and I mean that in a good way.
Following the warm reception of Hips & Makers, Hersh and long-term Muses drummer Narcizo, joined by bassist Bernard Georges, were poised for another stab at mainstream success. Actually recorded in 1993, pre-solo success, University is an extrovert album: sunny, stoned and sweat-drenched. Hersh seemed to have put plenty of demons to bed, and the band moulded her graceful songs into sweeping atmospheric rock classics. Perhaps University is the most straightforward and accessible of all of the Muses albums, and consequently their highest charting album in the UK (their only top 10 album), but for all that it seems slightly unrepresentative, though it is perhaps a route to understanding later solo and group releases. If there is one Muses album to put on at a party, it’s this one.
With Throwing Muses over for nearly half a decade and Hersh settled into her solo career, on 2001′s Sunny Border Blue cracks started to show in what is one of the most difficult of her solo albums to listen to. Songs written about private and personal events are less oblique and more direct than one had come to expect from Hersh’s canon to date. If the subject matter means the album is not always enjoyable, it is always interesting, and despite the obviously painful content of some tracks Hersh’s dry humour lift most if not all of them: ‘Candyland’ and ‘Listerine’ remain two of the most ‘rip your heart out, throw it into the dirt and grind a cigarette out on it with your shoe’ songs this side of Billie Holiday.
The Grotto is perhaps as far removed from the twisted folk-rock of Throwing Muses as Hersh has ever gone. Acoustic solemnity in extremis, Hersh’s bone china vocals adorn a collection of songs so evocative you can smell the pine logs burning in the fire of the remote, snowed-in mountain cabin. Despite the sombre tones, the beauty of the songs and surprisingly erotic lyrics prevent this album ever being depressing. Hersh’s main achievement with The Grotto is to make such spartan arrangements and chilling subject matter so uplifting. Buy a bottle of bourbon, wrap yourself up in your duvet and revel in the sublime.
Bookending the career of Throwing Muses, In A Doghouse and Limbo offer a somewhat Blakean insight into innocence and experience. The first, a two-disc collection of the 1986 debut and some earlier ‘doghouse’ demos is a shocking piece of art. Seemingly from nowhere, a group of four teenagers invented a new sound melding the sounds of X, early REM, folk and the Violent Femmes into dark, disturbing insights into disaffection, American youth and mental instability, of which much of the past decade’s vaunted leftfield indie is a Ditto. The latter, released in 1997, is a languid, assured, sultry record, chunky and huggable. It seemed to signal the end with its own closing track, one of the Muses’ finest moments, ‘White Bikini Sand’.
Throwing Muses – House Tornado / The Fat Skier, [iTunes 7.99 / Amazon £6.99]
Throwing Muses – Red Heaven, 1993 [iTunes 7.99 / Amazon £6.99]
Throwing Muses – Throwing Muses, 2003 [iTunes 7.99 / Amazon £6.98]
The Muses’ late ‘80s albums House Tornado and The Fat Skier are available together on one CD, which is a huge collection of frenetic excellence. Disturbing imagery of skinless Mexicans, giants, gin-fuelled skinny-dipping and a she-wolf after the war. It’s difficult to suss out what it means, but for that it is breathlessly exciting: the sound of four people revelling in their ability and drive to test themselves, and some of the best harmony singing in indie. Red Heaven is more morose. Recorded as a duo in 1993, Hersh seemed to be finding it difficult to reconcile the previous decade, but the album is nonetheless vibrant with ire, spite and rage. 2003′s Throwing Muses was a college-rock reunion, leaving behind the languid stoner feel of University and Limbo and harking back to the earlier days, with Donelly on backing vocals once more. But while ‘Los Flamingoes’, ‘Epiphany’, and ‘Half Blast’ are dizzying, epic examples of classic Muses, some of the other tracks lack their spark.
Kristin’s late ’90s albums Strange Angels and Sky Motel reveal two very different sides of Hersh as a solo artist (and really solo: Hersh plays everything on both). The first sounds like a lost session from some undiscovered mountain folk god of the 1920s whose original songs sound like leftfield standards. The latter is rock music from some sun-blasted desert moonscape. Electric guitars buzz in the heat, as will your head for much of the album, while the singles ‘Echo’ and ‘A Cleaner Light’ are bona fide jump-around classics.
Sometimes erroneously tagged as ‘Bug’ in honour of its opening track, 50 Foot Wave’s self-titled mini-album was an exhilarating introduction to Hersh’s new pet project that managed what so few thrash-inspired bands achieve: an unrelenting wall of drums, guitar and snarl, but with actual tunes and lyrics that stick in the mind. Three of these songs would wind up on the full-length Golden Ocean; the rest are preserved here for posterity. Seemingly revelling in the noise of 50 Foot Wave, 2007′s solo Learn To Sing Like A Star harked back to the amped-up sounds of Sky Motel, adding up to a fulfilling, hulking galaxy of an album. New vintage Hersh, it’s sardonic, sublime and packed with star quality, delivered with the passion, humour and bile that any devotee has come to expect. If there is one failing it’s a lack of cohesiveness that has marked Hersh’s post-millennial solo releases. Every song in itself reveals more detail, intricacy, craft, and beauty on each listen, but as a whole, the mood jack-knifes from track to track. That is until the final four, which swell to the thrilling crescendo of ‘The Thin Man’.
Throwing Muses’ Hunkpapa from 1989 was born from pressure for a breakthrough album, and although the songs include some of Hersh’s finest (‘Bea’, ‘Mania’), Donelly’s additions lack the verve and sparkle one might expect. Moreover, the production is well off. Still enjoyable, this album should be first in line when the remastering campaign starts. 1998′s solo Murder, Misery & Then Goodnight is a collection of folk songs sung to Hersh as lullabies when she was a child. This explains a lot. As the death toll mounts up throughout the album and the misery never ends, you’ll begin to wonder quite what Hersh’s childhood dreams were filled with. I shudder to think. It’s a fun collection of interesting takes on classic folk songs, but it may not be to everyone’s taste.
By now you have probably got the idea that Hersh doesn’t sit idle for long. She’s probably recorded another album in the time it has taken me to write this. With her new solo album Speedbath getting a full commercial release this summer, an astonishingly complex new 50 Foot Wave EP available to pre-order on limited edition vinyl from this weekend [read our preview], and a reformed Muses fleshing out some new and old songs on their current and upcoming tours, not to mention the intermittent Works In Progress (demos etc.), 10-4′s (fan-requested acoustic re-recordings) and another year’s worth of new monthly tunes released through CASH Music about to start – plus her forthcoming autobiography ‘Rat Girl’ (aka ‘Paradoxical Undressing’) – 2009 could be Hersh’s most productive yet. I’m not even sure we’ve covered everything.
Throwing Muses – The Curse, 1992 [iTunes £7.99 / Amazon £6.99] *
Kristin Hersh – Live At Noe Valley Ministry, 2003 [iTunes £7.99] *
Throwing Muses – Live In Providence, 2003 [iTunes £7.99]
50 Foot Wave – Live In Seattle, 2004 [iTunes £7.99 / Amazon £6.99] *
plus various CD-Rs sold at shows and promo-only releases
EPs + singles
Throwing Muses – Stand Up EP, 1984
Throwing Muses – Doghouse Demos, 1985
Throwing Muses – Chains Changed, 1987
Throwing Muses – Dizzy, 1989 [iTunes / Amazon £3.16] *
Throwing Muses – Not Too Soon, 1991 [iTunes / Amazon £3.16] *
Throwing Muses – Counting Backwards, 1991 [iTunes / Amazon £3.16] *
Throwing Muses – Firepile 1, 1992 [iTunes / Amazon £3.16] *
Throwing Muses – Firepile 2, 1992 [iTunes / Amazon £3.16] *
Kristin Hersh – Your Ghost, 1994 [iTunes / Amazon £3.16]
Kristin Hersh – Strings, 1994 [iTunes / Amazon £3.16] *
Throwing Muses – Bright Yellow Gun, 1994 [iTunes / Amazon £3.16] *
Kristin Hersh – The Holy Single, 1995 [iTunes / Amazon £3.16] *
Throwing Muses – Shark, 1996 [iTunes / Amazon £3.16] *
Throwing Muses – Ruthie’s Knocking, 1996 [iTunes £0.79] *
Throwing Muses – Freeloader, 1997
Kristin Hersh – Like You, 1999 [iTunes / Amazon £2.37] *
Kristin Hersh – Echo, 1999 [iTunes / Amazon £3.16] *
Kristin Hersh – A Cleaner Light, 2000 [Amazon £3.16] *
50 Foot Wave – Free Music, 2006 [iTunes £3.95] *
Kristin Hersh – In Shock, 2007 [iTunes / Amazon £3.16] *
50 Foot Wave – Power+Light, 2009
* also available on eMusic
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