n First Listen is a regular column that forces our regular writers to listen to bands that they’ve never heard—but by all rights should have—and charts the reaction.
In search of the next Nirvana, the early ‘90s rock press was weird enough to crown some unlikely bands. If Belly seemed the unlikeliest, well, this was just a sign of the times. I remember staring at their spring 1995 Rolling Stone cover shot. Boy, they looked great, especially guitarist Tom Gorman, who might have played “Beverly Hills 90210” do-gooder Brandon Walsh’s best friend. So white, so clean. They don’t have a chance, I thought. I was rather fond of the in-retrospect-touchingly-named Star, whose single “Feed the Tree” competed with “Cannonball” as college radio crossover of the year. I puzzled over how Belly leader Tanya Donnelly had upset their rather confusing family dynamics: Donnelly had left the Breeders before “Cannonball,” then both bands score gold albums. Who was this hookster huckster?
As for Throwing Muses, all I knew about them was that Kristin Hersh was related to Donnelly, that Hersh was some crazy woman who played fierce guitar (Lady Lazarus eating men like air, etc), and that Donnelly had written the only song of theirs I’d heard on the radio. The coiled, feral “Not Too Soon” would not have worked on Star, what with Donnelly actually snarling the chorus, but, in truth, the album could have used more feral coiled-ness. The rest of Belly didn’t have the stomach for static arpeggios and Donnelly’s pretty, obtuse narratives about thwarted femininity. She was thoughtful about sex, and her disinclination to parse the politics made them ideal for college undergraduates, for whom sex is mysterious right until the moment you have it (we didn’t even consider the politics). But Donnelly misused her intelligence; the skein of her thoughts entangled her. On those Star songs it’s difficult to know who’s doing what to whom.
I began with Tanya Donnelly because she formed a part of my musical adolescence, and Kristin Hersh did not. As I aged and sexual politics started to matter, the straightforwardness of Hersh’s approach suggested an ethos that had accepted ambiguities without abandoning them. Musically at least; lyrically Hersh seemed if anything more confused than Donnelly. Still, I could admire “Bright Yellow Gun” and “Dizzy” as riff rockers and disregard the rest. Then, a few months ago, a colleague sent a song hoping I’d bite: the somewhat forgotten “Two Step,” the last song on 1991’s The Real Ramona. Although the rhythm section lays down an unspectacular shuffle, the real action is in how the twin guitars of Hersh and Donnelly—the one playing sparkly major notes, the other unfurling menacing minor ones—underpin lyrics whose impenetrability did not assuage their resignation (it somewhat helped Hersh’s case that I initially heard “two step behind the rest” as “two steps behind the rest”). It’s a beautiful song, more “normal” than I expected. Listening to The Real Ramona informed by my admiration for “Not Too Soon” and “Two Step,” I was struck by how unsettling accessibility could be. Hersh, singing nearly at the top of her register on “Red Shoes,” plunges the line “This war criminal” into your heart; the Bo Diddley stomp of “Golden Chain,” with Hersh and Donnelly two-stepping all over each other; Donnelly’s “Honeychain,” which drips sweetness without making a point of it.
Everyone seems to like The Real Ramona, and I understand why: besides the songcraft I admired Hersh’s talent for marrying psychosexual poesy with guitar heroics. The bright yellow stop-start dynamics of “Bright Yellow Gun” was the next obvious step. Thanks to the use of wah-wah pedals University occasionally turns ham-handed, but the uncluttered self-production gives Hersh a bare proscenium from which to act out her most obscure fancies. Happily, University stinks of sex. Erotic bliss and (possibly) drugs inspire “Flood,” a sultry stunner that’s become my favorite Muse moment. Even the quiet moments rumble, like the bass-anchored seduce-a-rama “Snakeface.” Perhaps keeping an eye on her Rolling Stone-courting errant bandmate, Hersh essays Belly-worthy jangle on “That’s All You Wanted.” Drummer David Narcizo proves more than a match for Hersh on tracks like “Shimmer” (he’s often the one I’d concentrate on when songs got too gnarled); all the best Muse-ings are in effect dialogues between Narcizo’s protean patterns and Hersh’s declamations.
If I haven’t mentioned the band’s eponymous debut yet, remember, it’s out of print; used copies aren’t cheap. It says a lot, I suppose: this is an album people tend to keep. However, acquiring Hips & Makers (1994) helped. Hersh’s first solo album is more savage than any Muses I’ve heard: acoustic music as inchoate as electric feedback, unmitigated by concessions to a genre for which Hersh’s avidity has shown little patience anyway. If it lacks that sense of vastation overcome by cracking jokes with the studio band a la Neil Young’s similarly harrowing Tonight’s The Night, blame Hersh for not being a natural wiseacre. Exception: “A Loon,” on which Hersh shouts, “You’re crazy” while another voice whoops affirmatively. Jane Scarpantoni’s cello is practically a harmony vocal, its wail like a demon escaped from Hersh’s head. “Houdini Blues,” “Beestung” and the Michael Stipe duet “Your Ghost” (which I first heard on—really—the With Honors soundtrack) have the virtue of sounding exactly what you’d expect of Hersh: madness is Hersh’s duende and burden, a problem (to the rest of us, never mind her) which renders stuff like “distance” and “control” silly if not offensive.
Still, my understanding of Hersh’s politics—the art of negotiating a compromise between sexuality and conventional standards of comportment—didn’t ravage me, not in the way that Sleater Kinney’s did, whose Dig Me Out and The Hot Rock aren’t just products of Hersh’s influence but crucial, dizzying advancements. Not having heard the first album didn’t help. What I have heard is a pleasure deferred. I don’t know the intricacies of their relationship, but I do wish Donnelly would return. What searching music these two aging women could make—something less genial but no less hair-raising than the material Ana da Silva and Gina Birch recorded for the 1994 Raincoats reunion album (Donnelly’s career is at the same impasse). Hersh sensed, as far back as 1989’s “Fall Down,” that their aspirations formed their own interstice. Any songwriter capable of clarity as bracing as “I showed this girl my stitches / She said she had some too / She said she thinks she’ll start a rock and roll band too” so early in her career understands that showing someone your stitches isn’t enough, and rock and roll by itself won’t save your life either.
The Real Ramona
Hips & Makers (Kristin Hersh)