Tag Archives: Throwing Muses

Sue – Frazier Chorus

Well, another general election result in the UK I can’t bring myself to think about, let alone write cogently about. So, instead, here’s another piece about a little-known 4AD record. This time we’re looking at Sue, the debut album by the Frazier Chorus.

We can file this under: “Not for everyone”.

Frazier Chorus were a four-piece band when they released Sue in 1989. While that initial line-up contained a flautist (Kate Holmes, later of Technique and Client) and clarinet player (no bassist, drummer or guitarist), the band was essentially a vehicle for the songs and voice of Tim Freeman (older brother of actor Martin Freeman) and each record the band released featured a different line-up.

Freeman’s whispered sprechgesang and the band’s rather rinky-dink programmed beats and synths, decorated with touches of flute and clarinet, make the Pet Shop Boys sound like AC/DC. They sound a little like a synth-pop version of Belle & Sebastian, five years or so before the fact, and a similar bleakly cynical outlook to Jarvis Cocker in Freeman’s observational lyrics.

There’s some good stuff here. Storm, with its insistent synth cellos, is really effective; Sloppy Heart, which was Ivo Watts-Russell’s favourite and I gather was the song that got the band signed, is a neat indie-pop song; opener Dream Kitchen sets out Freeman’s musical and lyrical stall within 35 seconds (the lines “your life’s too good to be true; I think I’ll ruin it for you” was when I felt like I cottoned on to what Freeman was up to).

But some of the songs – usually the ones that gesture towards jazz or contemporaneous sophisti-pop – exist in a strange place where the combination of synths and acoustic instruments feels bland rather than exciting; the intro of 40 Winks sounds like the theme of a forgotten ITV sitcom from the mid-1980s, and Sugar High’s perky keyboard and faux-marimba is a similar low point. Over the course of 11 songs, Freeman’s limited voice becomes a bit of a problem too.

The best three or four songs on Sue are definitely worth a listen, but I’m not sure the recipe works at album length. I wonder where Ivo was coming from with Frazier Chorus. They feel like an odd fit for 4AD at the time, when the label’s most vital bands were the Pixies and the Throwing Muses, and the Cocteau Twins were just about to hit their peak with Heaven or Las Vegas. Perhaps he wanted just wanted to sign something small scale and intimate. A curio, then.

 

Sunday – Sonic Youth

I was 15 in 1998, and with a morning paper round and a summer-holiday lifting-and-shifting job at Westminster Cathedral (that’s the Byzantine-looking Roman Catholic one near Victoria station, not the Gothic Abbey at Parliament Square) I had money to spend on records. For whatever reason, I concentrated my spending on contemporary albums, some by bands whose music I already knew, others who I’d just read about and thought sounded cool. To this day, I probably have more records from 1998 than any other year.

The most forbidding of these albums (if I don’t count the 1986 Throwing Muses debut, reissued as part of the In a Doghouse double-CD set that autumn) was Sonic Youth’s A Thousand Leaves. Sonic Youth were an acknowledged influence on some of the bands I loved most, so when they brought out a new major-label record out after a 3-year gap – enjoying the single Sunday and eager to pay my respects – I picked up a copy.

It wasn’t what I’d been expecting. It wasn’t quite the squonkfest I’d been readying myself for; and anyway, at this point, I could deal with noise. What made it forbidding to a youngish kid was the sheer length of the thing: 73 minutes, with three songs clocking over nine minutes each. I had heard a lot of noisy and agressive music, but songs that distended or abandoned conventional verse-chorus structures were a new territory. Consequently, I got on much better with the relatively concise Sunday than anything else on the record.

Sonic Youth had released shortish “pop” songs before (their early-1990s singles: Kool Thing, Dirty Boots, 100%, and so on), but Sunday was different in its autumnal melancholy. In their long career, Sonic Youth had been provocative, gleeful, mischievous, silly, funny, angry, flirty, all kinds of things. For the first time, on A Thousand Leaves in general and on Sunday in particular, Sonic Youth sounded sad, and old (less so on Kim Gordon’s songs, to be fair).

Partly this is due to man-of-the-match Lee Ranaldo’s guitar, which sighs during the verses and screams in the obligatory mid-song freakout, and partly it comes down to the mix, which (typically for them) places much more weight on guitars than drums; the energy of Steve Shelley’s Krautrock-ish drumming – the song is suprisingly brisk – is obscured (negated, even) by Thurston Moore’s draggy Jazzmaster strums.

In the context of the thoughtful lyric and resigned delivery, what does a mid-song guitar freakout mean, anyway? It’s pretty short, lasting only 30 seconds or so, and avoids the more challenging harmonic territory they explored elsewhere, but it feels integral to the song to me as a sort of internal commentary on the ennui professed by Moore’s vocal; this is what’s really going on, it seems to say. This is how it really feels.

Sunday, fittingly, avoids coming to any kind of strong conclusion, and doesn’t even fade out. It just sort of stops, with no resolution reached and nothing likely to change. Sunday never ends, indeed.

 

Pneuma – 50 Foot Wave

In the mid-1990s, the economics of the record industry caught up with Kristin Hersh. She couldn’t afford to keep Throwing Muses on the road and the band weren’t selling enough records to justify the effort and expense of making them under the old model. Her solo albums, on the other hand, were very useful money-spinners: cheap and quick to knock out, and cheap and simple to tour behind. Have guitar will travel. Cheaply.

But eventually she reconvened the Muses for what longtime fans assumed would be one last hurrah, a self-titled record released in 2003. A belligerent-sounding effort, only marginally sweetened by the presence of Muses co-founder Tanya Donelly on harmony vocals, it contained many of the elements she would bring the following year to her new band, 50 Foot Wave: asymmetrical song structures, knotty time signatures and elliptical melodies.

Hersh has written (in her memoir, released as Rat Girl in the US and Paradoxical Undressing in the UK), that she has heard music in her head since a car hit knocked her off her bike in 1985 and her head slammed into the ground. In the mid-2000s, the songs she was hearing called for a different approach, particularly percussively. They needed greater aggression, more power, less finesse. David Narcizo, a player with impressive marching-band snare drum skills but fundamentally a guy with a light touch, was replaced by Rob Ahlers, who plays with enormous power and what sounds like desperation, as if his drums need to be constantly beaten off with sticks lest they do him some kind of physical injury.

Golden Ocean, the band’s 2004 debut full-length, was a shock in an age when so much popular rock music aped the loose-limbed grooves of British post-punk and the first side of David Bowie’s Low. Frantic and scabrous, 50 Foot Wave were unapologetically about power, energy and attack. Hersh, her voice long since abraded into an old-lady croak (a croak that, if I’m honest, limits the appeal to me of hearing her in acoustic guitar-and-vocal mode; it’s not a subtle instrument), frequently broke into raspy screams as the snare drum took a vicious beating. To give you an idea of the tone of Golden Ocean, Pneuma – one of the best things on the record, but by no means the only standout – hinges on a breakdown section where Hersh drawls “You know what?” three times over guitar feedback, as if beckoning the listener to come closer to her, before screaming, “Shut the fuck up!” But while the music was somewhat difficult – loud and confrontational, and with frequent hard left turns in structure and rhythm – it was the best record she made in the noughties, the more welcome for being so unexpected.

50ftwave1l-r Hersh, Muses/50 Foot Wave mainstay Bernard Georges, Rob Ahlers

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved, Part 4 – Garoux des Larmes by Throwing Muses

As drummer for Throwing Muses, David Narcizo has held one of the trickiest jobs in popular music for thirty years. Kristin Hersh’s songs are not, and have never been, simple; they are full of twists and turns, tempo changes, time signature changes and unusual feels. Narcizo has coped with it all; he’s even made it danceable. No doubt he’s been helped by the band’s series of quality bass players: Leslie Langston, Fred Abong and Bernard Georges. But still, he’s made a tough job look pretty easy and instinctive for three decades.

The early Throwing Muses sound lasted for two albums and two EPs, more or less: the self-titled debut, the Chains Changed EP (both 1986), House Tornado and the Fat Skier EP (both 1987). Stylistically, the songs from this era are characterised by their restlessness, their abrupt changes in feel, tempo and mood. Narcizo’s drums had to find ways to live in the quiet parts of these songs without overwhelming them while driving the heavier sections along (the songs would never have felt right if Narcizo had allowed Hersh’s guitar to carry him; no good rock music works that way). It would have been a challenge for anyone, but these guys were just kids, really: 19 or 20 years old. What they achieved is remarkable.

I’ve said before, I think, that I feel the standard of the average US drummer compared with the average drummer from the UK is higher, which (just hypothesising here) you could put down to the disciplines of marching-band snare drumming on one hand and jazz drumming on the other. In the UK, you have to go much further out of your way to learn these skills, so many don’t.

I’m not sure whether David Narcizo ever studied jazz, but I’d bet dollars to doughnuts he played snare drum in the school band, as 16th-note march-time feels make up about 50% of the drum parts on the band’s early records. My favourites are early single Fish, Reel (from Chains Changed), a Tanya Donelly song in which Narcizo switches between heavy tom patterns in the verses and his trademark snare march in the choruses (making both sound light and agile and funky through the addition of a stomping kick drum); and the rather gonzo Garoux des Larmes, from The Fat Skier.

Garoux des Larmes has probably the most intricate patterns of all Narcizo’s marching parts. The sticking is constant 16th notes, but the pattern is played over snare and toms rather than just snare drum (as it is on Fish and the chorus of Reel). Maybe highly trained drummers would consider this no big deal, but how you play intricate 16th-note patterns for several minutes at a time, with power, precision, steady tempo and a good feel, without ever getting your arms in a tangle, is completely beyond me. There’s a live audience video from 1987 that gives a good idea of what’s involved in playing this stuff. If you’re really familiar with the record, you’ll note the extra hi-hat work that Narcizo throws in here.

The band reached something of a crossroads on 1989’s Hunkpapa. Mania is an absolute career highlight, and for that alone the album is essential, but Hunkpapa had fewer marches and a heavier two-and-four sound overall; the band was evidently changing. The Real Ramona, the only record the band made with Abong on bass, was magnificent, and when Narcizo plays that huge opening fill on Counting Backwards at the start of The Real Ramona, it’s an amazing moment, but it’s also the moment that signals the end of the band’s phase one; the frantic march-time rhythms never did return. Red Heaven, University and Limbo saw Hersh turn up the guitars, and while Narcizo still played unmatched grip, he’d turned into a backbeat drummer, as the music demanded he should. All the records they made between their debut and Limbo have great moments (University‘s my pick of the Bernard Georges era), but Throwing Muses’ early music, thirty years on, remains immediately identitfiable, absolutely inimitable and still astonishing, and David Narcizo deserves just as much credit for that as Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donelly.

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Throwing Muses mk I: l-r David Narcizo, Tanya Donelly, Kristin Hersh, Leslie Langston

Pod by the Breeders

Hi there. It’s the day after the UK general election today, and I have to admit, I didn’t feel a great deal like writing anything other than a long, angry rant. But that would just have made me feel worse without actually changing anything. Instead I decided it’d be a good idea to write about something I genuinely don’t have a bad word for: Pod, by the Breeders, a subject I’ve been holding in reserve for a month or so. On another day, my write-up might have been more exuberant, but this is what I’ve got in me today.

A couple of years ago a bit of a, um, splash was made about the 20th anniversary of the Breeders’ second album, Last Splash. That’s the one with Cannonball, Divine Hammer and Saints on it. I remain unconvinced by Last Splash. I’ll go into bat for Divine Hammer and Cannonball, even if I personally have no wish to hear it again. The cover of Drivin’ on 9 is a career highlight for Kim Deal as a singer. No Aloha and New Year I’ll keep. That’s five out of 15. The rest I’d struggle to say anything about, good, bad or indifferent.

Pod, though. Pod sounds stranger and more wonderful every year. I never stop going back to it. And if I ever needed an excuse to write about it, it’s 25 years old this year.

OK, Mr So Deep, you say. Pod. The one with Tanya Donelly on it, recorded by Steve Albini? Pretty obvious why you like that one more, isn’t it?

Well, I can’t deny my fondness for those two artists. But Pod is Deal’s album. Literally so, as the plan that Donelly and Deal cooked up for the Breeders originally is that they’d make an album of Deal songs before then making a record of Donelly songs (they demoed some of the material that Donelly ended up using for the first Belly record, Star). Deal sang lead and wrote or co-wrote every song on Pod except the cover of the Beatles’ Happiness is a Warm Gun.

There’s nothing else like it; the closest I’ve heard is the Breeders’ own Title TK, but that’s a weak brew indeed compared to Pod. There’s a hint of the Pixies (still Deal’s main band at the time, and would remain so for another year or so after Pod’s release) in the way the songs put classic AB form in the service of some unlikely, surreal, subjects. The way that Deal’s and Donelly’s guitars play around each other sometimes recalls the interplay of Kristin Hersh and Donelly on Throwing Muses records (like Deal, Donelly had one more record with her main band left in her at this point).

But even with those precedents, it’s a singular album. The arrangements are sparse – there’s much less of that steady-state distorted guitar that you get on Pixies records – and the record is very “live” sounding: there’s background chatter audible at the end of songs, and all the way through the quiet, spoken intro verses of Metal Man; a spontaneous-sounding outro jam extends When I Was a Painter by over a minute (a long time when the record only lasts half an hour); Deal’s voice breaks into a squeal on Oh! and is left uncorrected. Overdubs sound few, and it wouldn’t surprise me if there were none at all.

It’s far from passionless, but it is somewhat detached-sounding. Indeed the album’s most compelling music comes from the tension between Deal’s frequently blank delivery and the themes and ideas that the lyrics hint at but never fully reveal. While dark, the effect is always just short of menacing, since Deal and Donelly are not sparing with hooks. I’ve remarked before on how Donelly’s work with Belly played in the space between the lulling and the nightmarish. Deal’s songs on Pod work similarly. Perhaps this influence ran from Donelly to Deal because it seems to have departed from the Breeders when she left; it’s entirely absent from Last Splash and is only occasionally tangible on later records.

It goes without saying that Pod sounds great, too. Spacious and powerful. With the mixes left relatively sparse and the guitars frequently hard-panned, Pod is as good as it gets for fans of the Albini drum sound. Britt Walford, on loan from Slint and playing under the pseudonym Shannon Doughton, sounds enormous. And what drummer doesn’t want to sound enormous?

If you’re unfamiliar with Pod and have any fondness for the indie rock music of that era, you are missing out on one of the finest records of its type.

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The Breeders in 1992, circa Safari: l-r Kelley Deal, Tanya Donelly, Josephine Wiggs, Britt Walford, Kim Deal (the Deal sister are identical twins, so if I’ve got them the wrong way round, do forgive me!)

Live music, part one

Since I was able to get my hands on a 4-track recorder as an 18-year-old, I’ve preferred recording to playing live, and I’m sure I always will do. I like playing live when it goes well, but there are so many factors you can’t control that make it stressful, from the size of the audience that will show up to technical problems striking right at the moment when you’re on stage and can’t do anything to solve them. At one gig I played once, at 93 Feet East in London, the power went out on Brick Lane from Whitechapel High Street up to Shoreditch, about half an hour before doors. We had little choice but to play the whole gig completely unamplified, in a big room, lit only by emergency lights and candles.

Recording sessions can be stressful, but things seldom absolutely need to be got right in this one particular moment. You can always do another take, you can always come back another day. Being a recording musician is less stressful than being a performing musician; being a recording engineer is less stressful than being a front of house engineer. And I’ve been all these things at one time or another.

As my love of recording grew, my enthusiasm for live music waned. Partly this was a matter of simple economics. I was not well off at the time (as in, didn’t know from week to week if I was going to earn any money, or get paid for the work I had been already completed), so what spare money I could amass had to go on recording equipment and instruments worth recording. But it was also a matter of not being enthused by the idea of live music any more. I was so passionate about the possibilities offered by recording that there wasn’t much room left in my life for any other interest. My devotion to learning the craft bordered on the pathological. When I wasn’t actively engaged in a recording project, I was thinking about it. Theorising. Reading. Studying. Listening. Especially listening.

I made a playlist of songs culled from every significant rock record I could think of from the late eighties to the present day and I listened to them all over and again. Listening for sounds, for trends, for techniques. For months, I didn’t listen to songs; I listened to drum sounds. For weeks within those months, I didn’t listen to drum sounds; I listened to snare sounds. I listened to how much close mic was being used as opposed to overheads, or whole-kit stereo mics or room mics. I listened to how quick the compressor’s attack was set, and how long its release was. After a while, where a normal person would hear a drum, which they may or may not be able to identify as a snare, I could hear a snare that went ‘blap’ or ‘wap’ depending how much the attack had been blunted by compression. I could hear how whether it was tight and dry, or big and ambient. I could hear how long the echo was, and make a decent guess at whether it was real room ambience or a digital simulation. I could sometimes hear a shift in snare sound in the midst of a quick whole-kit fill, suggesting the use of noise gating on the tom-toms. I got hung up on whether panning drums from the audience’s perspective was more satisfying than panning from the drummer’s.

Recording engineers care about this stuff. It became my life for a couple of years.

The dedication required to learn all this – the stuff you’ll need to learn if you’re searching for timeless, emotional perfection in the studio – automatically led to less interest in live performance, as a player and a fan. For years, I hardly went to gigs unless I or a good friend was playing one.

But in the last year or so I’ve started to go to more. I’ve got enough disposable income that I can, for one thing, but also I had an experience at a gig coming up for a year ago that was something of a revelation. Early on in my relationship with Mel, we went to see Hem play at the Union Chapel, which we’d both been to a couple of times before and both loved. It’s a gothic-revival church in Islington, North London: stone, marble, high ceilings, wooden pews – it sounds great for the right kind of show, for sit-down, acoustic music-type gigs, and of course the fact that it’s so beautiful just adds to the atmosphere.

Hem are a band whose music I care rather deeply about. I’ve written about them here, in a post that to my regret is one of least visited on my blog. Hem’s music has been well described by Scott Elingburg in a popmatters.com review of Departure and Farewell:

They’re a Brooklyn band dreaming of other, more pastoral locales: the folkist regions of Appalachia, the countrypolitan halls of Nashville, the brass band marches of New Orleans, and anywhere along the East Coast where an acoustic guitar and songwriter might have met.

Swap East Coast for West Coast and that’s them exactly.

This Union Chapel show, as I said in the post linked to above, was one of the best experiences of my life: an incredible performance in a beautiful space of a group of wonderful songs. Just witnessing it with each other brought Mel and me closer together; I could feel it happening during the show. And it reawakened me to the power of live music. Since then I’ve seen several more gigs, some good, some great; some with Mel, some with friends. Midlake at Shepherd’s Bush with Mel, where we ran into Kit Joliffe with whom I play in various people’s bands. Jon Auer at the Islington with Kristina (aka Sumner, whose band I play drums in). Jonny Greenwood and the London Contemporary Orchestra at the Roundhouse in Camden with my friend (and boss) Sara. I’ve seen Mel play her first open mics. She’s seen me sing my songs on stage, and play bass, drums and guitar with other people, too. Before the year’s out, I’ll see Spoon, Throwing Muses and Sebadoh; new favourites and old favourites. Live music is, rather to my surprise at this point, quite a big part of my life again. Once again it feels like a powerful, potentially transformative force.

Hem live

Hem, live at the Union Chapel, October 2013
Photo by Christina at All About Hem

Moon Over Boston – Tanya Donelly

Tanya Donelly is one of my favourite musicians. The step-sister of Kristin Hersh – leader of Boston-area art-punk band Throwing Muses since the mid-1980s – Donelly was the group’s lead guitarist, harmony singer and occasional singer-songwriter for their first four albums, between 1983 when they formed and 1991 when she left after The Real Ramona (which is one of the Muses’ very best records, right up there with the debut). Donelly was also a founding member of the Breeders, and Pod bears heavy traces of her involvement; the group were never quite as interesting to me after she stepped aside to focus on her post-Muses band, Belly.

Unlike Throwing Muses, who continued their honourable labours without ever catching a break, Belly were immediately successful: top-five album chart success in both the US and the UK, top-20 singles, heavy rotation on MTV and radio, and Grammy nominations. Donelly was an inspiration to anyone who’d ever been a second fiddle but harboured ambitions of succeeding on their own terms, and she did it making music that was shiny and inviting, but with a disconcerting aura of strangeness and spookiness, a sound I’ve described elsewhere as like something bad going down in Toytown. Belly were quite a thing.

Alas Belly’s success didn’t last, and the group unravelled after recording a wonderful second album that didn’t strike the same chord with the public that their first had. Donelly took a year or two to come back with her first solo record, Lovesongs for Underdogs, and it was a slightly odd mix, blending the shiniest hooks of her career (Pretty Deep is an alterna-world smash) with some of the disquieting obliqueness that had marked Belly out as something special on tracks such as Swoon, as well as occasional straitforward ballads like Manna, which Donelly had never really engaged in before. The production, though, was pure AAA, which didn’t suit the more idiosyncratic material, but didn’t quite elevate the poppier songs either.

While the Lovesongs era didn’t succeed in making Donelly a solo star the way it seemed designed to, it did produce an enduring favourite of mine. Moon Over Boston was the B-side to the album’s second single, The Bright Light. To my knowledge, it’s the only proper recording of the song, which was written by Gary “Skeggie” Kendall, a guitarist, promoter and Boston scenester from the 1980s and ’90s, formerly of the bands Tackle Box and the Toughskin. Probably cut live with the full band, like a proper jazz side, it’s a spot-on recreation – produced by Kendall and long-time Boston hero Gary Smith – of a certain type of small-band jazz record, with exactly the right kind of warm saxophone sound and all the proper passing chords; it’s even got the old-school, free-time intro. It’s a beautiful record, and Donelly’s voice is surprisingly adept at this sort of tune, sounded not unlike Blossom Dearie. I’m convinced it could become a standard if someone were to make a romantic comedy called Moon Over Boston and feature this as the title track. Maybe I should get to work on a screenplay.

Donelly stepped away from music in the mid-noughties, and trained as a post-partum doula. However over the last year or so, she’s recently put out a sequence of EPs, the Swan Song series, a title which she says doesn’t indicate imminent retirement. Hersh, meanwhile, powers on. The most driven musician I can think of (see here for some of her backstory), Hersh will make music as long as she’s got two working hands and a voice. Next month, I’m going to get to see Throwing Muses play in London with Donelly guesting. Let’s just say I’m looking forward to that one.

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Mania – Throwing Muses

 

I was flying, flying through the air, thinking, So this is what this feels like.

As the pavement came up toward me […] a thought occurred. You’re about to hit your head harder than you’ve ever hit it before, so maybe you should… you know… go limp.

I lay in the street, feeling the brand new sensation of a lot of blood leaving my body, then tried to unfold myself. Lifting my left leg, I noticed there was no longer a foot at the end of it.

Then a woman appeared from nowhere and leaned over me. She was wearing mirrored sunglasses. What I saw in her glasses was bizarre: I had no face. The front of my head was hamburger and blood with two blue eyes staring out.

When I turned away to look for my missing foot, the woman grabbed what used to be my face and turned it toward her. ‘You were hit by a car!’ She spoke loudly and slowly, carefully articulating each word. ‘You’re gonna be fine!’

Why is she talking to me like I’m foreign?

 

Kristin Hersh, Paradoxical Undressing, 2010

 

In 1985 in Providence, Rhode Island, an eighteen-year-old Kristin Hersh was knocked off her bicycle by a well-known local oddball, referred to in her book only as ‘the crazy witch’, who drove off without stopping. In hospital, Hersh realised she was hearing things that other people were not. Loud, abstract sounds, a bit like heavy machinery. Slowly these metal noises became tonal and organised. She was experiencing auditory hallucinations, and progressed to hallucinating whole songs. Strange songs, fragmentary songs, songs with funny out-of-key chords, jarring tempo changes and tunes that took a while to decipher.

Hersh began presenting these songs to her band Throwing Muses, already together for four years and a fixture on the local punk scene. But her behaviour was getting strange: she couldn’t sleep so spent most of her nights breaking into swimming pools and doing lengths until she was too exhausted to stay awake any more. She had boundless energy, so much so that her bandmates were concerned about her inability to slow down, let alone stop. She wanted to know everything, see everything, live everywhere. Eventually she was informed that this was classic manic behaviour and was diagnosed as bi-polar, a diagnosis she struggled to accept. She was given a cocktail of powerful drugs and electro-convulsive therapy. She stopped taking the drugs when she fell pregnant a few months later.

The song Mania, then, was written by a woman who knew whereof she spoke. Fast and unrelenting (unlike many early Muses songs, it barrels along at the same tempo for its whole duration), Mania was her most vivid, if not her most lucid, musical reflection of her mental state. It’s not easy listening – at this remove it’s hard for me to recall how hard I had to work as a 16-year-old hearing Hersh for the first time to get inside this music and make sense of it. I had no reference for it, knew of no one else who sang songs like this, this thing, with its frenetic country-polka rhythm in the verses, crazed Subterranean Homesick Blues-style vocal delivery, and unsettling breakdowns where Hersh declares ‘shocking is therapy’, before screaming ‘electrify your head’. Hersh is unique, a one-off, undervalued and inevitably taken for granted.

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Throwing Muses have breakfast, 1989: l-r, Leslie Langston (bass), Tanya Donelly (guitar, vocals), Kristin Hersh (vocals, guitar), David Narcizo (drums)

The early Throwing Muses records (their eponymous debut, second album House Tornado and third album Hunkpapa) are the best documents of this frantic and unsettling period in Hersh’s artistic career. 1990’s The Real Ramona was a transition, a more considered, conventional record with pop hooks and more ABAB song structures. Nevertheless it retains enough of Hersh’s spiky originality to be compelling in the way a proper Muses record is.

After Ramona, Hersh’s stepsister Tanya Donelly left the band, making a record with Kim Deal as the Breeders (Pod, a classic) before forming her own group, Belly. With their more approachable but pleasantly strange sound – like something bad going down in Toytown – Belly achieved instant commercial success in its first year, the photogenic Donelly even being approached to appear in a Gap ad. Star reached number 2 in the UK album charts and sold 800,000 copies in the US, and Feed the Tree was a number-one Modern Rock hit single. These were indeed heady times for semi-popular indie rock artists.

But surprisingly Hersh’s commercial peaks were ahead of her too. The bombastic and rather hollow Red Heaven from 1992 reached number 13 in the UK album charts, and 1994’s University peaked at number 10 (in the US it fared less well and Sire dropped them). Most impressively, Hersh’s solo album Hips and Makers reached number 7 in the UK album charts, which for an entirely acoustic mood record with some pretty unconventional songwriting seems scarcely believable today.

For me, Hersh hasn’t recaptured the greatness of her work between 1986 and 1994. That her voice has become ever hoarser and throatier doesn’t help, and nowadays she frequently writes compelling tunes she can’t adequately sing. But apart from that, something that I essentially can’t define is missing from her work since the late 1990s. I’m trying to work out what it is at the moment by reacquainting myself with the early Muses stuff and Hips and Makers, before moving on to her output since 2000, all of which I have but none of which has ever really connected with me. I’ve got tickets to see the Muses in Islington later this year, which I’m looking forward to hugely, but I wish I could have seen them in their pomp 25 years ago at the Town & Country. That would have been quite a thing.

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Throwing Muses on the beach, 1990: l-r, Narcizo, Hersh, Fred Abong, Donelly

 

On reunion records, on fitting new art into your life, balancing all your creative projects, and stuff like that

When you’re young and you don’t know much about music, almost every time you get a new record you’re taking a step into properly unknown territory. Not only might you not know much about the wider body of work of the artist whose record you’re buying, but you probably don’t know that artist’s context either: who they are, where they’re from (both literally and figuratively), who influenced them, who signed them, who they’ve played with and so on. As you get older and more knowledgeable, that experience recurs less often. It does for me, anyway. And so I find I’ve become a little more comfortable poking around in the margins of favoured artists’ catalogues, or listening to artists who grew out of a scene I’m familiar with, than I am diving headfirst into a completely new thing and having to start from scratch with it. That’s a major job of work, I’m a little out of practice, and I don’t always feel like I’ve got the time – or the space in my life – to do it properly.

Similarly, when a favourite band of mine gets back together to release new material after a long hiatus, I always feel a sense of trepidation. Other fans might be wildly enthusiastic about the idea of new songs to immerse themselves in and getting another chance to see them play live, but my reaction is normally more ambivalent. I know this band, I’ve come to understand their body of work, I’ve got a sense of the shape of their catalogue, and opinions about the peaks and troughs – and now you’re telling me there’s this new record? And I need to hear that too? And absorb it, understand it, and determine its place in that band’s canon? What an imposition!

Ah, first-world problems.

There are specific artists and records I’m thinking of here. Over the last couple of months, a bunch of old favourites have put out new records after hiatuses of varying lengths (seven years, 10 years, 14 years, etc.), and all of these records are on my shopping list. But at the same time… I know these artists’ work already, I’ve got dozens of records on my computer I’ve hardly heard, new recommendations coming in all the time from friends, a list of bands are artists I’d like to hear who I’m all but entirely unfamiliar with, my own projects to keep up with: I’m making records, albeit slowly, with James McKean, and Yo Zushi, playing drums with Sumner, which is also a live project, and still writing and recording my own songs (album expected when I stop being a perfectionist and insisting it’s not finished until I’ve recorded that new song I wrote last week, which will then be replaced by the new song I wrote this week).

Maybe this is just a post about the past not having the good manners to stay in the past where I can pick it over and understand it at my leisure. Maybe it’s the time of year, with a birthday, Christmas and New Year coming up fast. Maybe it’s the anniversaries of two major life events that come up in the next few weeks. But time seems so short and there’s so much still to do, to learn, to see, to hear. Sometimes it’s a little overwhelming.

My apologies for writing a diary entry rather than something analytical and useful. It’s all I’ve got in me today! Have a great Sunday.

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Belly – King/Sparklehorse – Good Morning Spider; or less hi, more fi, part 3

Talking about her career in music and her final Swan Song EPs in a recent interview with Mouth magazine, former Throwing Muses and Breeders guitarist/Belly frontwoman Tanya Donelly described Belly’s second album King as a more ‘lo-fi’ record than their debut, Star.

Strange description, I thought. King‘s not a slick record, but it’s one that sounds like a band in a room playing its songs. It was produced and mixed by Glyn Johns (Beatles, Stones, the Who, Zeppelin, the Eagles – enough of a track record for ya?) and engineered by Jack Joseph Puig, at the very high-spec Compass Point studio in Nassau: a minimum of overdubs, live vocals, hard-panned guitars, natural-sounding ambiances. Donelly’s voice sometimes cracks. Gail Greenwood’s bass does not always hit the one with Chris Gorman’s kick. You can hear real-time fader and pan-pot moves. It sounds great. I wouldn’t want to hear it any other way.

Star sounds good, too. But it doesn’t sound like a band playing songs together in a room. It sounds like something bad going down in Toytown. It’s a very carefully constructed sound world, one which had little to do with the material reality of Belly-the-band playing instruments in a room. Which brings us back to the discussion of terminology from a couple of months back. If a ‘low fidelity’ record is simply one that isn’t slick, then, sure, maybe King is lo-fi. If a lo-fi record is simply one that doesn’t sound ‘good’, then King ain’t one in my book. If a lo-fi record is one that doesn’t sound like the music sounded before it hit tape, then King is the very opposite. It’s a hi-fi record. One of the hi-est.

And, from King, back to Good Morning Spider by Sparklehorse. GMS‘s centrepiece is a song called Chaos of the Galaxy/Happy Man. Happy Man is probably the best song Mark Linkous ever wrote. It’s propulsive, urgent, utterly surreal and yet somehow anthemic and universal. Linkous, something of a contrarian, decided to bury the first verse and the chorus under AM radio static and bleepy noise. The song then almost fades all the way in for the second verse, before going the other way, becoming temporarily submerged entirely under white noise and a reprise of the organ chords of Chaos of the Galaxy, the short instrumental piece that begins the track. Finally the song fades in properly in time for the second chorus.

Linkous later admitted in interviews that this was a deliberate attempt to sabotage a song he recognised as having commercial potential; he didn’t want it to be extracted and released as a single the way Someday I Will Treat You Good from Vivadixiesubmarine plot had been. I’m sure Capitol were delighted. Still, when you don’t have a producer, you might be able to pull off this kind of thing once or twice before you get a stern talking to from your label.

I wasn’t aware until recently that Linkous re-recorded the song without the radio static and Chaos of the Galaxy sections, releasing it on an EP called Distorted Ghost. The version I knew and treasured was a live version that segued into Pig (called, imaginatively, Happy Pig), which was also released on Distorted Ghost. I’d burned it off a free CD from Uncut before promptly losing the CD and forgetting where the track came from (a BBC session, I think). I loved the rawness of it, and the furious tempo at which the song was played. At that speed, Linkous’ plea (that he only wants to be happy) sounded more real than ever. In 2010, he showed us how real.

But let’s not get caught up in that now. What matters for this discussion is that, for all that Chaos of the Galaxy/Happy Man is raw and messy, it’s not a faithful document of a real-time musical event. It’s an elaborate construction, an aural sleight of hand. Under a sensible definition of the term, we couldn’t call this track lo-fi. The term simply wouldn’t be applicable. Which only goes to show the difficulty of talking about music. You constantly have to define your terms, almost song by song. When two music fans talk about lo-fi, they may very well not mean the same thing by it. Sometimes this talking at cross-purposes is fun and thought-provoking. Sometimes it makes you want to bang your head against the wall.

If I have a conclusion – after a couple of months of kicking around these ideas occasionally – it’s that I have a personal definition of lo-fi that probably isn’t shared by music fans generally, so I have to acknowledge the more general definition too. And regarding Sparklehorse, Good Morning Spider is a difficult album to pin down. Superficially it sounds more like a lo-fi album ‘should’ sound, but it achieved that sound in a variety of ways, which didn’t always have to do with just banging out songs in an honest and authentic way, which often seem to be the unspoken connotations of the term ‘lo-fi’. More than simply a rough, raw, ragged album, GMS is an artful album, even if, when exposed to the opening bars of Pig, my brother once proclaimed, ‘But this doesn’t even sound good!’

BellyHorse
Left: Mark Linkous and his brothers in weird, Danger Mouse and David Lynch. Right: Belly on the beach, Nassau, 1995

A cover I’ve recorded of Happy Man, based on the version I refer to above: