Recorded live in three weekends with few overdubs and very little rehearsal, this self-titled album breaks a seven-year drought for these late-eighties post-punkers. The band is essentially the same as the one that first appeared on 1995's University
-- David Narcizo on drums and Bernard Georges on bass. Sometime Muse Tanya Donelly joins her step-sister Kristin Hersh on background vocals, making this the first album since 1991's The Real Ramona
to feature both of them. The result is muddier and less precise than the best Throwing Muses -- and with Hersh's simultaneously released solo album absorbing most of her acoustic ideas, not as intermittently lyrical -- but it bristles with the same energy, multiple, often conflicting, ideas and emotional range as earlier material.
The Throwing Muses always had a raw quality, but earlier materials were artfully, carefully raw, with the basic elements -- Hersh's superlatively expressive voice and the killer rhythm section of Narcizo and Georges -- clearly arranged and separated. The self-titled album is a different kind of uncooked, like meat that's bloody and still warm from the kill. It is often difficult to make out Hersh's lyrics against a bludgeoning wall of bass, drums and guitar. That perfect dead stop which on earlier Muses tunes often marked the beginning of a whole new musical idea is skipped here with abandon. Instead, we bound headlong from tempo to tempo, from earth mother to banshee, from whisper to scream with hardly a breath in between. And, of course, the album plays out against a whole new backdrop. Whereas sudden lurches into new territory once recalled the Pixies, they now seems equally influenced by late 1990s post-rock. Where Hersh's half-mad wail once seemed like a cross between Sinead O'Connor and Kurt Cobain, it now seems just as much like a better, distaff version of emo. All of which is probably just a roundabout way of saying that the Throwing Muses are as relevant now as they were the last time around.
Highlights include the excellent "Pandora's Box", built on a steady pulse of swing-rhythmed guitar, the same cadence you hear jazz drummers playing on the cymbals. The drums, though, stick to straight-up punk quarter notes, and the chorus, when it comes, is a bright yellow gun of a melody, sunny enough to undercut the darker lyrics about the can of worms inside the box. "Speed and Sleep" reaffirms the powerful combination of a tough, masculine bassline and Hersh's inimitably womanly vocal style. They work in sync for a while, sliding down the same series of notes, then Hersh swoops in for the long hold at the chorus -- and boy, can she hold a note, not just maintaining it but making it grow and evolve, count after count.
These are not simple songs. They are loud and hard and difficult to pin down. Even the relatively poppy "Portia", which seems to stretch out the killer guitar riff from the Breeders' "Cannonball" and which highlights the twining, harmonic glory of Hersh and Donelly's sisterly similar voices, has a fuzzy, unknowable quality that just doesn't give up easy answers. "Epiphany", one of the more difficult and multi-faceted tracks, starts with clattering, hard-hitting punk beat, evokes two great Pixies tunes ("Where Is My Mind?" and "Monkey Gone to Heaven"), then lifts upward into an anthemically soaring chorus. Most bands would get three or four songs out of this. The Throwing Muses cram it all into one.
This self-titled return to recording is excellent -- though not, to my ears, as blow-me-away great as either University or The Real Ramona. For one thing, it doesn't have any tracks that show the band's softer side -- now apparently relegated to Hersh's solo efforts. For another, there is sometimes too much going on, all at once, unseparated, so that it's hard to really "get" the song. Still, if a band's only faults are being too loud and too rocking and having too many ideas at once, we're all ahead of the game. If the Throwing Muses are not still at the top of their game, they are very, very close.