If you only listen to one song today, make it “I am a Chicken” by Mourn (2016, from the album Ha, Ha, He.).
Mourn is an indie rock quartet from Barcelona. The band of teenagers formed in 2014 and they released their eponymous debut later that year. Last year, they released their sophomore album Ha, Ha, He. via Captured Tracks in this country. I remember that I had the album on my radar last year, simply because of their affiliation with Captured Tracks, but I didn’t know anything about the band. I still know very little about them. Then, I saw them on this year’s Hopscotch Music Festival lineup, and when I started doing my Hopscotch homework, I got excited about it.
They say that they’ve been influenced by the Chicago brand of post rock — bands like Tortoise and The Sea and Cake. They also say that they’ve recently found a new influence in Throwing Muses. Any time a band says that they’re influenced by the Muses, I become very, very interested in them. If I’m honest, I don’t really hear much of a Muses sound in their music. Instead, I’m reminded in a lot of ways of the amazing Tsunami. Specifically, the stuff from the first side of Deep End. In a completely different way, I’m reminded of Bully, whose album Feels Like was my seventh favourite album of 2015, and whose show I was shut out of at Hopscotch 15. Oh, and since I’ve brought it up, Bully has a new record coming out on October 20. This isn’t about Bully, though.
In today’s song, I hear a lot of Tsunami, but Mourn’s sound is much better and their production values much higher than those of Tsunami. For some reason, Tsunami wanted their records to sound really muddy, and that was something that always disappointed me very much; they were an incredible band to see live, but their intentionally poor production values make listening to the records much less fun. This isn’t about Tsunami, either. This is about “I am a Chicken”. This is that song:
“I Am a Chicken” by Mourn
Speaking of disappointment, I really like the repeated line “Sorry to disappoint you”. And the layered vocals. Those are my two favourite bits about the song. There’s a really abrupt ending, and it’s not exactly because it segues into the next song on the album. It only sort of segues into the next song. It’s just the way it is.
Tonight’s song is a bit on the short side, and in fact, the entire album clocks in at a very tidy 26:05. Punk rawk.
You can buy Ha, Ha, He. as a download via Bandcamp here, or in physical formats via Captured Tracks here
Mourn is playing on the Friday night of Hopscotch, the second night of the festival. For the first time, the fest will run for four nights. They have the 11:00 slot at CAM, which is a long hike from the rest of the festival footprint, but there’s a lot of great stuff going on at CAM this fest. I don’t have a scheduling conflict in that slot, so it’s a safe bet that I’ll be there.
The Hopscotch Music Festival is in just three weeks. Check out the lineup, the schedule, and the ticket options. As usual, I’ll be there all weekend.
Today, I’m going to forgo the whole “if you only listen to one song” thing. Instead, I’m going to take a trip down memory lane to February of 1993. It’s a story that I used to tell all the time, and it involves some of my favorite all-time bands. And my favorite all-time concert experience.
People who know me in person, and especially people who have known me for ten years or more have probably heard parts of this story. I’ve even written about it before on a different blog here. Rather than simply cut and paste the whole blog post, I’ll tell it again, with a couple of details added, and some others omitted.
My desire to retell this story got started because earlier today, I was wearing a very old school t-shirt that I’ve had for 24 years. A t-shirt that I got the very first time I saw Throwing Muses play. It was during the The Real Ramona tour. To be exact, it was June 7, 1991 at the now defunct 1313 Club in Charlotte, NC. Anastasia Screamed was the opening band that night. Although I didn’t know it at the time, they were practically the permanent support act for Throwing Muses. I had never heard of them at the time, and I had forgotten all about them until just now.
Anyway, I was wearing that The Real Ramona t-shirt, and posted a photo of myself in it to my social media pages. This sparked a conversation with some of my friends that ultimately led to the story about the (second) time that I saw The Sundays.
Way back in February of 1993, during the golden age of indie rock, I was a junior in college and a very active member of the college radio station. WQFS, Greensboro. 90.9 FM. “Your ONLY alternative”. Most of my good friends were also very active members of the radio station. In fact, all of us would eventually, in some capacity, be managers of the radio station. Back when it was still done for the love of it. These days, kids get academic credit or even a small stipend for doing the same.
We were all very much into The Sundays, and when they came to Chapel Hill in support of their album Blind, it was a no-brainer that we would all go. It was on a Friday night. February 19, 1993, to be exact. We bought tickets and piled a bunch of guys into a car for the short drive to Chapel Hill. Luna was the support act, playing to promote their debut album Lunapark. I don’t think any of us knew at the time that Luna rose from the ashes of Galaxie 500, and none of us had much interest in seeing them. I had played the song “Slash Your Tires” on my radio show, but I didn’t know anything about them. But that night wasn’t about Luna. It was about The Sundays. And because we were all heterosexual young men, it was about the chance to see the radiant Harriet Wheeler front that band. She was, and probably still is (even as she’s about to turn 52) as hot as the sun. As I used to say, “as hot as 12 suns”.
We packed ourselves as close to the front of stage as we could, and we had a very good time. Luna played a great opening set which ended with a cover of the Beat Happening song “Indian Summer”, and The Sundays exceeded all of our expectations. It was a night to remember. One of those “I recall the first time I saw ______” events. At one point, someone in the crowd shouted out “Harriet, you’re the spawn of Aphrodite”, which was hilarious. Because of her in-ear monitors, she didn’t even hear it. The rest of the band had a chuckle about it, and immediately carried on.
After the show was over, we did what we always did, and what I still do to this day. We lingered around for the chance to say hello to the band. We waited in the hallway by the dressing room. And waited. And waited. We heard that they were on their bus, so we went outside by the bus, where we and many others were met by some giant lummoxy guy named Scott. I don’t know if he was their tour manager or the bus driver or what, but he informed the small crowd that the band wouldn’t be meeting any fans and that we really needed to leave. So we did, cursing Scott’s name the whole time.
Because some of us bought tour shirts, we noticed that the next stop on the tour was in Norfolk, Virginia. That show doesn’t show up on this site, but it definitely happened. As it turns out, one of the guys from my crowd had an uncle living near Norfolk who worked in concert promotion. As a shot in the dark, Reid called his uncle to ask if his firm was promoting that show. Indeed they were. Without even asking for it, Reid’s uncle told us that we could come up there and go to the show on his dime. Or his company’s dime, anyway.
We packed the same lot of guys plus a couple more into two cars and made the 4 hour drive to Norfolk. Reid’s uncle offered not only to get us into the show at the now defunct The Boathouse, but also to put us up at his house. And take us to dinner. And, amazingly, get us backstage passes. I never did remove the credential sticker from its backing. Here it is.
The show was exactly the same as the one in Chapel Hill. Amazing. Breathtaking. Fever-inducing.
After the show, we didn’t really know what we were supposed to do. We had all interviewed bands before, but that was always done between soundcheck and the show. We’d never been to a fancy “backstage” event. We found someone who sent us in the right direction, and we apprehensively went to the “secure” area. Just outside the “secure” area, we met a teenaged girl without credentials who asked us to deliver something to Luna frontman Dean Wareham. We agreed, and in we went.
The backstage area was larger than we were expecting, and we had no idea what the protocol was, but we wanted to make good on the promise to deliver that item to Dean Wareham. We found him, introduced ourselves, congratulated him on a good set, told him about the girl, and handed him the item. It was a carrot wrapped by a two page hand-written note written on loose leaf notebook paper. The whole thing was bound with string. He accepted this “gift” and read the first part of the note aloud to us. It opened with “I listen to your music every night while I’m in bed. Your songs come to me while I’m sleeping” The carrot was no longer “weird”. It was disgusting. He didn’t read any further, and he dropped the carrot on the floor. I don’t even remember seeing Dean for the rest of the night. I recalled this story to my friends today, one of my co-conspirators from that night said “He probably wondered who was weirder: the girl who wanted to give him the carrot, or the random dudes who were entrusted with it”.
We’d come through on our promise to deliver the note to Dean, but we didn’t know what we were supposed to do at that point. We sort of moved to one corner of the room and looked at ourselves for a few minutes. Were we allowed to eat the food? Were we supposed to be mingling with other back-stagers? The members of The Sundays entered the room, and with no provocation, David Gavurin walked straight up to me and pointed to my Throwing Muses shirt and said “Throwing Muses? Fucking brilliant”. It was a different shirt to the one I was wearing today. That night, I was wearing the shirt from the Red Heaven tour. Anyway, Gavurin broke the ice and eased our trepidation by commenting on my shirt. I’d already met lots of musicians before, but this was the first time, and remains the only time that I was sort of star-struck. It was much easier after that ice was broken.
We hung out for what seemed like a couple of hours, meeting some of the other fans backstage. A couple of girls who had traveled from the UK to follow the band on the US tour. A twelve year old boy who was learning the drums because he loved The Sundays so much. A few others. At one point, Gavurin and I were talking about the state of live music. Back then, moshing and stage diving were all the rage. You saw those things even at the most relaxed shows. Somebody said they’d heard that people were even stage diving at Slowdive shows. To that, Gavurin brilliantly replied, “If you stage dive at a Slowdive concert, it’s really got to be a SLOW dive”.
Eventually, the night came to an end. The band had a hard and fast rule that no fan could take a picture of themselves with Harriet. That makes sense. Although they had no rules about taking a photo with the whole band, and even though I had my camera, I didn’t get a picture of me with the band. I got loads of pictures of the band, though. The one here is a pretty good one. I just wish that my pals and I were also in the picture. I also got some great autographs on my Blind booklet. Earlier in the night, I had asked them about the “Spawn of Aphrodite” comment in Chapel Hill, and they made a play on that when they signed their names. Click on the image of the cd booklet at the top of this post to enlarge the pic. You’ll see that David Gavurin signed it “David (Venus)”, bassist Paul Brindley signed it “Paul (Penus)” (sic), Harriet Wheeler signed it “Harriet (Anus)”, and drummer Patch Hannon signed it “Patrick”. For 20 years, that was my favorite bit of signed memorabilia. A couple of years ago, I asked Sharon Van Etten to sign the Tramp booklet, and she drew a portrait of me. That kind of took over as my favorite thing.
After those two shows, and the experience of meeting The Sundays, I was floating on air for a couple of weeks. I told the story a lot, and people got really tired of hearing it.
We’re down to the final ten, and there’s no sense in messing around.
As with the other portions of the countdown, click on the album artwork to be taken to a place where you can buy the album.
10)Throwing Muses — Purgatory/Paradise
This is the ninth album by the seminal indie rock band who made their hay in the 1990s. It’s also their first in ten years. In the interim, frontwoman Kristin Hersh has been busy with her other band 50 Foot Wave. She’s also written a couple of books. This album has been in the works for about three years. While we hardcore fans waited with bated breath, we were constantly given updates on the status of the album. We were also given early versions of the new songs as “works in progress”. While this was nice, it also took away from some of the excitement about the new album. It’s a great album that I’m probably overrating due to the fact that they’re in my top three favorite bands of all time. Still, though, I had to place it in the top ten. The fact that I already knew the songs and the fact that she deliberately sequenced the 32 songs in a way that makes no sense hurt the album’s stock, but it’s still hard to vote against an album that has my name in the liner notes.
9)Low — The Invisible Way
This is the 10th album from the Duluth, Minnesota slowcore pioneers. It’s every bit as awesome as I expected it to be. I don’t know how it’s possible, but 20 years into their career, they just keep getting better.
I finally got my chance to see them at Hopscotch this year. They were the last band that I saw at the three-day festival, and it was a perfect ending to what was a very eventful time.
8)Besnard Lakes — Until In Excess, Imperceptible UFO
This is the fourth album from the Montréal indie/post-rock/shoegaze band centered around the husband-and-wife duo of Jace Lacek and Olga Goreas. I really loved their previous record, and I like this one just as much. If it wasn’t such a stout year for new releases, this would easily end up in the top five.
Like all of their albums, this album has a bunch of references to espionage and morse code and things like that. It’s a running theme with them, and there’s even a loose story line running through all of the albums with this spy guy and a mystery woman. That’s the story that they want us to believe anyway.
I got to see Besnard Lakes back in the spring, and it was really amazing. I had never seen them before, and I really hope that I see them again soon.
7)Boardwalk — Boardwalk
This is the debut album from the Los Angeles dream-pop duo who only met each other a little over a year ago. This is one of the many fantastic albums that I found out about through a mailbag submission. Amber Quintero and Mike Edge went on a road trip together, wrote one song, then a bunch more. The end result is a pretty spectacular work of dream-pop genius with just enough mainstream appeal to put them on the verge of something big. Overall, the album is pretty impressive, but it’s bookended by a couple of breathtaking songs in “I’m Not Myself” and “I’m to Blame”.
Don’t be surprised if this band soon takes the place that Beach House currently occupies as sort of the darlings of the dream pop world.
6)Black Hearted Brother — Stars are Our Home
This is the first record by the new band fronted by former Slowdive/Mojave 3 frontman Neil Halstead. He’s joined by Mark Van Hoen, formerly of Seefeel; and a guy named Nick Holton. This band is a perfect mix of shoegazey, spacey dream-pop and experimental electronic stuff. It leans more towards the ambience and the sun-kissed bliss reminiscent of Souvlaki, especially on the standout track “(I Don’t Mean to) Wonder, but there’s also a good deal of bleep-bloop going on, especially in “My Baby Just Sailed Away”. Most songs find a really happy medium between those styles.
This album totally caught me by surprise. I literally had no idea that Halstead had a new band until it just showed up in my soundcloud stream. I was just letting the stream do its thing one day, and “(I Don’t Mean to) Wonder” came on. It knocked me on my ass. And then when I went to find out what the story was, I was knocked on my ass again. It’s a really lovely album
5) Basia Bulat — Tall Tall Shadow
This is the third album by the Toronto indie-folk singer/songwriter, and by most accounts her most personal album. I absolutely loved her last album and couldn’t wait for this one. It didn’t disappoint at all. It has more of a “full band” sound than the other albums, and it even has a weird Radiohead-esque song in “Someone”, but there’s nothing about this album that disappoints. The new album was released at the end of September, making it part of the 2014 Polaris-eligible class. I should think that it’ll be a shoe-in for the shortlist. I was lucky enough to see Basia Bulat in November, as her band was one of the first to play a show at a new venue that’s attached to the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro. It was a really great show, and just what I needed.
Although I no longer make a “Canadian” and “non-Canadian” list, it’s worth noting that this is BY FAR my favorite Canadian album of the year.
4)Weekend — Jinx
This is the second album by the post-punk band from Brooklyn by way of San Francisco. Their 2010 debut album Sports got very high praise and their 2011 EP Red got as much. To say that this sophomore album was highly anticipated might be underselling the situation. The new record was everything that I hoped it would be and then some. Incredible, beautiful noise. Thicker and sludgier than I expected. Hotter and sweatier.
I saw them play this autumn not long after the album came out, and they were very good. It was quite fitting that there were no stage lights. No effects. Just a little bit of fog and pitch black.
There’s a lot of Unknown Pleasures and a lot of Disintegration in this album, and you’ll never hear me complain about that.
3)Typhoon — White Lighter
This is the first full-length album from the 11-member indie-folk orchestra from Seattle. They’ve got violas and violins and cellos and upright bass and horns and lots of percussion instruments and then, of course, they’ve got the standard rock band instruments. And a lot of the band members contribute vocals. In some ways, they’re a lot like the Milwaukee 12-piece post-rock/indie-folk band Altos. That’s fantastic company to be in.
I heard about this band through the mailbag, and I immediately fell in love with the scope of their sound. I’ve spent a LOT of time with this album, and it’s a lot of fun. And I love how some of the songs change styles mid-stream. I love how some of them start out like a folk song and end up like a post-rock song.
In the winter and spring of 2014, Typhoon will be touring North America and I’ll very much look forward to seeing them in the small space that is the Cat’s Cradle Back Room.
2)Torres — TORRES
This is the stunning debut by 23-year old Mackenzie Scott, who calls Memphis her home. This incredible album reminds me of everything that’s good about Cat Power and also everything that’s awesome about Sharon Van Etten. It’s indie-folk. It’s indie-rock. It’s the diary of a sad girl, and it’s breathtaking. It’s honest and it’s real. When she recorded this album, she made a choice to keep it really real. Most of the songs were done in one live take. There are some things that a perfectionist might have cleaned up with multiple takes and edits, but I really love how organic it sounds. Like a performance.
It’s impossible for me to pick out a favorite song from the album, and it’s also impossible for me to name a song that I don’t like. I usually listen to this album front-to-back twice in a row.
On the last day of Hopscotch this year, there was going to be a big scheduling conflict that would have made me have to choose between Torres and Low. Thankfully, Torres played one of the day party shows that day, and I got to see her then. Conflict resolved. She put on a fantastic set and it was a brilliant start to a brilliant day.
In addition to buying her amazing record, you should also treat yourself to a Daytrotter membership, where you can score this session. And go see the Torres band when they come through your town.
And the number one record, which probably won’t come as a surprise to anybody who knows me:
1)My Bloody Valentine — m b v
The third album by the genre-defining shoegaze band and the first since their seminal, game-changing 1991 album Loveless.
In the 22 years that passed between Loveless and m b v, rumors would sprout up every two or three years about a new album that was nearly finished, or a “lost” album, or a band reunion, or how they had announced that they were never going to play together again, or how Bilinda Butcher and Kevin Shields weren’t on speaking terms. All of these were just rumors. This new album became a confirmed rumor a couple of years ago, and every time it got delayed we thought that it was just an elaborate ruse. When Kevin Shields promised the record “before the end of 2012”, then failed to produce the album, we all thought that we were being had. When they started booking shows and actually playing shows, we all realized that it was real. When they announced that the album would be self-released and sold exclusively on their website, everybody got excited. When the website crashed on the release date, we all got frustrated. As we all tried to simultaneously refresh the page, we made matters worse. Finally, though, things worked out.
After 22 years of waiting and another few hours of waiting for the website to work, we all got our instant downloads.
I freaking love this record. From the opening notes of “She Found Now”, which is reminiscent of “Loomer” to the wildly original “Wonder 2” and its jet engine sound, I love everything about this album. It’s absolutely everything I was expecting and much much more. The LA shoegaze band Medicine returned this year after an almost equally long hiatus and disappointed me very much, but this is perfect.
Some of you are probably wondering if I forgot about the new album by The National, or the new one by The Arcade Fire, or the new one by Frightened Rabbit. I didn’t forget about those. I really like those bands, and I have their new records, but I hate two of them. The other just barely missed my list. I might write more about that stuff later, but probably not.
If you only listen to one song today, make it “Dog Days” by 50 Foot Wave (2004, from the 50 Foot Wave EP).
50 Foot Wave (who I will mostly refer to as “Fippy”) is a power-pop trio that sort of uses Los Angeles as its base. The band was founded in 2003 by Throwing Muses frontwoman Kristin Hersh as a different outlet. She’d made several records over a nearly 20 year span with the Muses and several more on her own, and this is something radically different from all of that. By 2003, the Muses released their last proper album, and her focus was on her solo career. The bulk of that material is based around an acoustic guitar. And a lot of 3/4 timing. Soft and gentle.
Eager to do something completely new and different, Hersh decided to found her own label –Throwing Music– instead of waiting around for 4AD or Warner Brothers or whoever to green-light the project. She brought longtime Throwing Muses bassist Bernard Georges with her to start 50 Foot Wave. They recruited drummer Rob Ahlers, who played on one album with the band Chalk FarM.
50 Foot wave is a much louder, faster, harder band than the Muses, and with an entirely different mentality. Fippy is much more raw. Not as sensitive. Purely carnal. The band name, by the way, has something to do with the wavelength of the lowest humanly audible tone.
In the spring of 2004, the band released a six song mini-album, which was met with critical indifference, but gobbled up by Hersh’s faithful followers. They toured pretty extensively with that EP, and that was the plan for the future. They were supposed to release an EP every nine months and embark on a 100-show tour with each EP. Than plan never really went into action.
In the spring of 2005, with distribution help from 4AD Records, the band released their first (and only) long player —Golden Ocean. That record featured two of the songs from 50 Foot Wave, including today’s song.
“Dog Days” by 50 Foot Wave
There’s no messing around. It hits the ground running, and then gets chaotic at 0:15. And, really… What a vocal line to start:
Rats scatter after waves on the dirty beach
I like the little break at 2:50, and it brilliantly sets up the sonic assault that begins at 3:17.
I really like the line at the end of the second verse
Don’t touch me: I don’t know where you’ve been
That line may or may not be an intentional nod to the Muses song “Dirty Water”, when Kristin sang:
Don’t touch me. There’s history on your hands
I actually get those two mixed up sometimes.
Apart from the noisy coda, my favorite bit is the third verse:
Simultaneously attracted and repelled
If you don’t know by now, I’ll never tell
I wake up a ton of un-kissed guilt
Just keep telling me this is life, we didn’t miss it
Just keep telling me this is life, we didn’t miss it
After the Golden Ocean album, they again toured pretty aggressively, but I still never got the chance to see Fippy.
In the spring of 2006, the band released their next EP —Free Music! through their website. It was, as you might guess, available as a free download. This was done in conjunction with Creative Commons, which helps musicians freely share their work with their fans, encouraging their fans to share, while still protecting their own intellectual property rights under flexible copyrights. This helped Hersh found her own similar platform called CASH Music. The idea there is that fans support their favorite artists via quarterly “subscriptions”. Hersh’s “Strange Angel” program keeps her afloat and lets her do what she does. She is 100% listener funded. See the details of her “Strange Angel” program here.
Radiohead got all the glory for releasing their 2007 album In Rainbows using the “pay what you want” model, but loads of other bands including 50 Foot Wave were already doing this.
Through the Fippy CASH music page, all of their stuff is available as free downloads. With the suggestion that you leave something in the tip jar or purchase physical copies via the Kristin Hersh web store.
Download your free copies of 50 Foot Wave, Golden Ocean, and Free Music! in one convenient package here.
Download the 2011 EP With Love From The Men’s Room (song-by-song) here.
A new Fippy EP has already been completed and should be released some time in 2013, but not before the first new Throwing Muses record since 2003 gets its release probably in the late winter or spring.
Today is September 29. Even though I’ve already written posts about Kristin Hersh and her band Throwing Muses, I simply have to write this “bonus post”. Don’t worry. This isn’t today’s “If you only listen to one song today…” post. This is just for fun. This one’s for free. The official post of the day will come later.
Throwing Muses formed in 1981 when Kristin Hersh and her step-sister Tanya Donelly were 15 years old. Tanya is three weeks older. They had been friends for a while, and around this time, Tanya’s dad married Kristin’s mom. They were just a little local Newport, Rhode Island band, and they weren’t even old enough to enter the clubs where they were playing shows. They tooled around there for a while until they backed into a contract with 4AD Records, becoming the first American band to sign with the prestigious UK indie label.
If you have ever met me in real life or if you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know that Throwing Muses is in my top one favorite bands. Read the linked posts for more than you ever wanted to know about the Muses, about Kristin, and about Tanya. Also, read Kristin’s memoirs. In the United States, her book is called Rat Girl, while in the rest of the world it’s called Paradoxical Undressing. You’ll learn more than you wanted to know about what it’s like to be a pregnant teenager living with bipolar disorder. If you’re a fan of the band, you’ll learn some good insight about some of the older songs.
One of the band’s older songs, and certainly the longest-living song is “The Letter”, which mentions the date September 29, 1984. Today, I’m going to introduce you to three different versions of that magnificent song to show how it has evolved over the years. One from 1985, one from 1994, and one from 2011.
The first is from a legendary (among hardcore Muses fans) bootleg tape made from a show that Throwing Muses played on January 26, 1985 in Providence Rhode Island for the Rhode Island University campus radio station WRIU. Before Al Gore invented the internet, a bootlegged cassette recording of the show was circulating in the old-fashioned hand-to-hand method. A few years later, in the early days of the internet, when we were using dial-up to get on Prodigy just to go to a chat room, this thing started to pass through the mail. It was a low quality recording to begin with, and people were making third-, fourth-, twelfth-, twentieth-generation cassette copies before they passed it along. Naturally, the quality kept getting more and more compromised. By the time I got my hands on a fiftieth-generation copy, it was barely audible. Even when technology allowed us to make CD copies of things, it was too late for that bootleg. What exists now is a digital copy of what may or may not be an original recording. Even with digital enhancement, it’s still pretty low quality sound. Still, I think it’s really important to hear this song in its infant state. This is that song.
“The Letter” and “The Party” by Throwing Muses (1.26.1985 — WRIU)
Note the sparsity of the drums. This was back when David Narcizo’s kit had no cymbals. I’m not even sure that it had a snare drum. To this day, he still relies much heavier on mount toms and much less on snare than most drummers. The recording is pretty bad, so the guitar bits sound almost like keyboard, and for some reason, I find that to be appealing. It makes the song darker and creepier, I think. There are also some lyrics that were omitted from later versions. For example:
Just remember there are pictures
Very special to me
Swimming in my head
Can someone tell me what people do for life
There’s an answer in your sweater
And I’m drawing you a picture
Here’s the line I made before
It’s in your face
Can someone tell me what people do for love?
This digital file also includes an early song called “The Party”, which I like a lot, but which was never turned into anything else.
Nine years later, Kristin Hersh launched a solo career, which started off as a mostly acoustic gig, and she included a lovely version of “The Letter” on her debut —Hips and Makers. Obviously, it was done in a fancy recording studio with real recording equipment, so there’s no point in comparing the production values, but it’s also really clear that Kristin had learned a lot over the years. She learned to play her guitar a lot better. She learned to sing like a star. She learned that there are more emotions other than anger.
It really is a magnificent song in this solo acoustic format: “The Letter” by Kristin Hersh
I don’t think you can listen to that song and not be in love with Kristin’s guitar playing. It never mattered that the lyrics are nonsense, or that they’re what Kristin herself would call “psychobabble”. It’s about her voice and her guitar. And it feels like ice.
Starting in the autumn of 2010 and going through summer of 2011, Kristin released a “new” EP through her website on the first day of each season. They were meant for her hardcore fans, and they were offered as free downloads. The digital EPs consisted of new treatments of older Throwing Muses songs. Some were from the very early days, some were from the later (read: late 1990s) years. Either way, they were all sort of meant to accompany the Rat Girl/Paradoxical Undressing book.
“The Letter” appeared on the Spring Sessions EP, which (along with the other three Season Sessions) is available for free here. Kristin is 100% listener funded, through the Creative Commons, the tip jar, and mostly through her Strange Angels. We sign up to give her a certain amount of dough each quarter, and we know that we’re making it possible for her to make records. She knows that people are going to steal and share things anyway, so she just makes it “free”, and she knows that she can count on her hardcore fans to keep sending the checks.
Anyway, here’s that 2011 version: “The Letter” by Throwing Muses (2011, The Season Sessions)
As always, the guitar is exquisite. I think there’s a second guitar bit in there somewhere, and I really love the simple, delicate bass line. I also love that the drums mimic the way they were way back when. It was probably awfully tempting for David Narcizo to write a new, complex, heavy drum line to this song for a full kit, but he chose to keep it real, and play it just the way he played it in 1985.
Out of those, I still like the Kristin solo version best. No matter which version, though, I’ve always loved the lines:
Don’t kill the god of sadness,
Just don’t let her get you down
See, the man inside this book I read
Can’t handle his own head
So what the hell am I supposed to do?
I’d like to know how he died
My hands are shaking
Don’t you love me anymore?
I also love how the song is bookended by this set of lines:
Gather me up
Because I’m lost
Or I’m back where I started from
I’m crawling on the floor
Rolling on the ground
The cycle of life.
It’s been one of my favorite songs by my favorite band for a long time now, and of course I had to bring it out on September 29.
Get Hips And Makers here. Get the 2011 Season Sessions: Spring EP for free (by joining her mailing list) here. Buy Kristin’s memoirs Rat Girlhere.
If you only listen to one song today, make it “Pearl” by Throwing Muses (1992, from the album Red Heaven).
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.
In 1990, Langston left the Muses and briefly joined The Wolfgang Press. In 1991, Donelly left to be in The Breeders full-time, and then to form Belly.
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.
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.
Stop by her page for all of the latest details on all of her recording projects. Go here to learn more about how to become one of Kristin’s “Strange Angels”.