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“it has been suggested that i was insane during the Muses early days, something I have vehemently denied in my effort to prove that this stuff could come out of our girlfriends, our sisters, and our mothers.”
So wrote Kristin Hersh, the main figure behind the band Throwing Muses, and listening to their early work, formed in the early 1980s when Hersh was a teenager, one could understandably question her stability. The first Muses album from 1986 is a singular masterpiece (and one of this writer’s all-time favorite albums) that taps into uncomfortable emotional depths with absolutely wrenching moments and dizzyingly creative interplay, exorcised using standard rock band guitars and drums.
Twenty-five years later, the group’s first career-spanning compilation, “Anthology,” arrives, available as single disc and a special edition which includes an extra disc of B-sides and rarities. Somewhat like a person who’s most interesting while drunk, Throwing Muses gradually became less compelling as its material became less unhinged and more adaptive of “college radio” rock aesthetics. Although “Anthology” samples from each of the band’s full-length studio albums, the track list is puzzling at times, with a dearth of numbers penned by the group’s other songwriter, Tanya Donelly, three from the relatively obscure (yet excellent) mini-album “The Fat Skier,” and just one—the somber closer “Two Step”—from “The Real Ramona,” the band’s breakthrough album.
Several selections are spot-on, though, including the intense self-loathing, indignation and despair of “Hate My Way,” the unclassifiable, Dada-poem “Fish” with its entrancing rhythm section momentum and a strikingly atypical guitar line, and the stirring “Cry Baby Cry” (not The Beatles song), which displays the band’s Meat Puppets country-punk influence and devastating lyrics such as “First a suicide without a note, and now a note without a suicide.”
The second disc is a mixed bag, with unnecessary covers of Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” and “Cry Baby Cry” (The Beatles song), but fans will find it essential for several standouts, such as the taut yet disquieting “Cottonmouth” and the jittery, propulsive “Snailhead.”
As a retrospective, it’ll do, but as an introduction to the band, I can’t imagine making a stronger impression than with the group’s powerful 1986 debut album—a quarter-century later, there’s still nothing quite like it.
Sense & Antisense
The Brooklyn quartet Palomar, led by vocalist and guitarist Rachel Warren, first caught my ear a decade ago with a kinetic, deliriously spirited version of Brian Eno’s “I’ll Come Running,” off the album Palomar II, and the group’s best songs, such as the flawless “Knockout,” are the epitome of great power pop, being nimble, tight, and just about irresistible with alternately sweet and staccato vocal harmonies and restless drumming. Now on its fifth album―the self-released Sense & Antisense, available as digital downloads and as uncompressed WAV files on a logo-embossed flash drive―the band is in a different place than where it was ten years ago. While many tracks on the album are upbeat, there’s a slightly muted enthusiasm, as if the group isn’t as caffeinated as it was on its early releases; the carefree, playful attitude and frivolity oozing on past numbers has largely been replaced with a mood more driven by a sense of conviction.
The opener “Wouldn’t Release You” immediately demonstrates a few exceptions to the band’s typical sound, using a bit of reverb and synth notes, but the group’s style is apparent, especially with its trademark busy, nervous drumming. It’s followed by the fuzz-guitar stomper “Infinite Variation,” with a cymbal-heavy conclusion and an urgent spark that’s delivered with a sort of bittersweet tone. Apart from the drums, the most prominent instrument on “Never Grieve” is the piano, accompanying gentle vocal harmonies―with this version of Palomar, vocal outbursts would seem a little out of place. The album’s penultimate track, the instrumental “Coda,” goes for an affecting, somber mood for most of its duration, before unleashing a gushing ending. The closest that Palomar gets to matching its younger, more playful attitude is on the final track, “When You Stopped Talking to Me,” featuring ukulele, electric piano, and glockenspiel parts. Part of me wistfully misses the breathtaking heights of tracks like “Knockout” and “I’ll Come Running,” but Palomar has moved on, playing around with varied instrumentation and moods, making its personality much more complicated than before.