Friday, 4 September 2015

50 albums to take to my grave #26: Throwing Muses/untitled

The words 'troubled' and 'tortured' are often thrown around to describe artists who seem to come across as erratic, morose, dark and moody. Thing is, Kristin Hersh is one of the very few artists to whom these words could actually genuinely apply. As a teenager, she was plagued with mental health issues, eventually diagnosed as bi-polar. She became pregnant and had her child taken from her, regarded as an unfit mother. Her demons forced her to write twisted, almost schizophrenic songs that evoked episodes of mania and frantic, violent mood swings.

While still 16, her band Throwing Muses recorded 'The Doghouse Cassette', a 10-song demo. Somehow, it resulted in a record deal. The band became the first American act to sign to 4AD, the only people it seemed who could understand just what the hell this music was all about. The demos were re-recorded and Throwing Muses' debut album emerged in 1986.

If you can get through the whole thing in your first sitting, you've done well. It's certainly one of the most uncomfortable records you'll ever hear, even disturbing at times. Commonly referred to as the band's self-titled debut, it was actually untitled.[1] That's understandable; I'm not sure what you could call this album. Hersh sounds possessed. It maybe her voice, but 'the voices' made her do this. It's utterly astonishing, breathtaking and bewildering. It's also more than just a little frightening. Vicky's Box epitomises the anguish and terror. "I only love pieces of things that I hate / Like this box" she shrieks. A myriad of strange chords and uneasy rhythms cascade around her, making the whole thing rather unnerving.

Perhaps the most troublesome of all is the closing track Delicate Cutters. Hersh's voice is accompanied only by her acoustic guitar and the ominous rumbling of David Narcizo's drums. And the voice is devastating. It stops you in your tracks as you wonder what the fuck is going on in her mind. "The walls never leave / And the walls begin to scream."

The disconcerting mood rarely lifts, though there is room for some decent tunes as well. Soul Soldier remains a career highlight, its nod to country music hinting at a sound the band would occasionally revisit. Tanya Donelly's sole contribution Green is another one that sneaks up on you, though it is one of the darker moments of her repertoire. Call Me seems to come charging at you right from the off, but its second half becomes more melodic.

The first Throwing Muses stuff I heard was the infinitely more accessible 'Hunkpapa' album a few years later. When I first heard this debut, it scared me half to death. I wondered how a band that made this record could have gone on to play an arena tour with R.E.M. and eventually gain a small degree of the commercial success they deserved but never courted. Kristin Hersh was troubled and tortured and whatever else it was that resulted in her making this extraordinary, intense record. "I feel boxed in / Think I'll be alright" she offers unconvincingly in Vicky's Box. Thankfully she was and still is, but god knows it wasn't exactly easy. Neither is listening to this record.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent choice. More disturbing than anything from Pixies, who, for all their Bunuel-referencing, never sounded this fractured. mad e sense at the time that Pixies supported The Muses.