20 years ago today, one of my favorite records came out. Red Heaven, by the seminal indie rock band Throwing Muses. If you know me at all, you know that they’re in my top three favorite bands.
In 1985, they became the first American band to sign to 4AD Records, and they landed the contract even though they hadn’t yet met Ivo Watts-Russell. All they really wanted was a cat to catch the mice in their house. He gave them a record contract. You can read a little bit about that in my post about Kristin Hersh, and you can read a lot about that in Kristin’s memoirs Rat Girl. Buy that book here.
Between 1986 and 1996, Throwing Muses released seven proper albums. In 2003, they released another. They have about 40 songs for a new record which has been in the works for about 18 months now. The latest word is that the new album should be out in early 2013.
For the first four albums, the lineup was Kristin Hersh on vocals and guitar, her step-sister Tanya Donelly on guitar and vocals (Tanya’s father married Kristin’s mother when the girls were teenagers), Leslie Langston on bass, and David Narcizo on drums.
Of course Kristin and Dave have been on board the whole time. After Donelly dropped out, they never replaced guitar #2. It wasn’t long before Bernard Georges, who was the band’s roadie, became the full-time bassist.
On Red Heaven, the band was simple. Kristin and Dave. Leslie Langston didn’t officially rejoin the band, but she played bass on the album. Bernie played with them on the road.
Red Heaven is still my favorite record of theirs. Even though it’s bare-bones, it’s got a lot of punch to it. And a lot of cool stuff buried beneath the surface. Legendary hardcore punk rocker Bob Mould (tune in on September 4 for a feature on his indie band Sugar) contributed some guest vocals on the song “Dio”. I’m convinced that he also played guitar, but the credits don’t list that. There’s also a 66-second instrumental song –“Vic”– about Kristin’s best friend, the late Vic Chesnutt. Read that Vic Chesnutt post for the details of the time that I saw Vic and Kristin performing together. There’s a lovely video of them performing one of his songs together. Also, some unfortunate details about his death.
Right from the drop of Red Heaven, there’s a totally different feel than the previous two albums had. While the untitled 1986 debut and the 1987 album House Tornado had a punk feel to them, Hunkpapa (1989) and The Real Ramona (1991) had more of a pop feel. By then, they were subsidized by Sire/Warner Brothers Records, and efforts were made to make them reach a more mainstream audience. Not that they were bad records. To the contrary. Just that some of the edge was gone. I don’t know how much of that was the major label pushing the band around, or how much of it was the band in transition.
That edge was regained, if only temporarily, on Red Heaven. On side A of the album, anyway. It’s an edge that they couldn’t have had, and an album that I don’t think they could have made if Tanya had still been on board. Nothing against Tanya. Everybody knows that I’m a big fan of Tanya. Kristin’s more angular, less peppy approach, and the fuzzier, buzzier production means that I like it more. And I don’t think it was a coincidence that that particular album was the first one out of the chute after Tanya left the band.
I can’t really say that today’s song is my favorite Muses song. I’ll say that it’s one of my favorite songs from my favorite album of theirs.
First, the album version of the song:
“Pearl” by Throwing Muses
I love the changes of pace. I’m a big sucker for that kind of thing. I love that it starts off soft and sweet. On the album version, it’s just Kristin singing and playing an acoustic guitar at the beginning. Then at the 2:00 mark, it gets loud and fast and electric and affected. And the drums! I think it’s one of Narcizo’s best. I especially like the chaos that starts around 3:56 to 4:13. There’s a false ending at 4:32, then back to the solo acoustic bit. It’s really great.
The initial pressings of Red Heaven came with a bonus CD, which was Kristin playing a live acoustic solo set in 1992 at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Here’s that version:
“Pearl” by Throwing Muses (Kristin Hersh solo acoustic version)
There are a couple of full-band live versions of the song, but my favorite, BY FAR, comes from one of those 4AD “temporary releases”. The Curse is a Throwing Muses live album that was recorded from a couple of different 1992 performances in London. Here’s that version. This is the definitive one. Better than the other live versions. Better than the album version.
“Pearl” by Throwing Muses (live version from The Curse)
In this version, she’s playing her electric softly and quietly and unaccompanied in the part that would have been an acoustic. For the purposes of analogy, this part is like climbing the first hill on a very tall, very fast roller coaster. At 2:05, you crest the hill, and it’s straight downhill at a breakneck pace from there. The guitar comes in much louder, heavier and faster than it does on the album version. Dave comes in with those big cascading drums, Bernie comes in with the bass, but most importantly, Kristin stomps on her pedal, and starts tearing it up. It’s still though, all about Dave’s drum smackdown around the 4:03 mark. After that, there’s another part that I love. When it gets to the false ending/change of pace at 4:30, some of the audience members don’t know that there’s still another minute of song.
Red Heaven is available here.
The limited edition of Red Heaven, which has the bonus Kristin solo acoustic live CD, was a limited edition and is long out of print. Copies are hard to find, and a little spendy. Here’s one copy on CD, being sold through the amazon store. The same seller also has the limited edition with the bonus disc on vinyl here, for a few more dollars.
The Curse was a limited edition. I don’t know how many were made, but it’s obviously long out of print. Copies can still be found in the amazon store here.
If you have a one-purchase limit here, I’d go with The Curse. They’re by far the best live Throwing Muses recordings out there. I already said that I prefer the The Curse version of “Pearl” to the album version, and there are a couple more that are the same. I prefer the The Curse version of “Two Step” to the album version from The Real Ramona for the same reasons. Kristin was on fire. Her guitar was on fire. Dave was on fire.
Both “Pearl” and “Two Step” have really sudden changes of pace, and that’s one of the things that I’ve always loved about the Muses. Those changes are exaggerated in the versions on The Curse, and they justify the price of admission many times over.
While I’m suggesting the use of the amazon store, there’s a really awesome way to support Kristin directly if you’re a fan of her music. For the past few years, she’s been entirely listener supported. She releases her own records with no support from any label. Whether it’s her solo stuff, or the new and astonishingly vast new material for the new Muses record, or the stuff that she’s doing with her hard rock band 50 Foot Wave, every penny of the backing comes from fans. You can make a one-time donation, or you can become one of her “strange angels”, who commit to an ongoing financial contribution. In return, we get things like advance copies of her solo records, spots on the guest list to her shows, and access to some exclusive media. It’s not about getting free stuff, though. It’s about supporting Kristin, who has been making some of my favorite records for more than 25 years.
For extra credit, you can stop by one of my old blogs for a telling of the time I drove 750 miles to see the Muses play.