Monday, May 11, 2009

Throwing Muses: Chains Changed, The Fat Skier, and "Fish" (1987)

Sometimes I think Throwing Muses were the best band of the '80s. I don't have much use for their '90s work, after Tanya Donelly left; not that I think Tanya was all that, but like a lot of great bands I think the Muses were really fueled by the tension between two very different songwriters (Donelly and Kristin Hersh). Actually the Muses at their best were fueled by the Hersh/Donelly tension and the phenomenal rhythm section of Leslie Langston and David Narcizo. They were probably the weirdest of the musically sophisticated bands, and definitely the most musically sophisticated of the weird bands.

Weird: but it worked. Like how they solved the problem of the "difficult second album." Their first album, 1986's Throwing Muses, was a dark and disturbing masterpiece, critically acclaimed and modestly successful. Lots of pressure to follow it up.

So they just don't. Instead of making a proper second album, 1987 saw them releasing a four-song ep (Chains Changed) and then what amounted to another ep (The Fat Skier - seven songs, plus about fifteen minutes of baby noises). I guess you can get away with that kind of stuff when you're recording for 4AD records.

Brilliant move, although I have no idea if it was planned. Taken together that's eleven songs (one of which was a repeat from the first album, though), a full album's worth, but without the pressure of making a full-album statement. These were just eps, or an ep and an oddity: reduced expectations.

It helps that the songs are awesome. Chains Changed is four of the most maddeningly catchy and cathartic records they ever made. The Fat Skier, meanwhile, is a valid advance on the first-album templates, trancelike dirges and bruising psychic workouts.

But the real brilliant move (well, commercial suicide, but artistic brilliance) was tucking the best song away on a label sampler. "Fish," released on Lonely Is An Eyesore. (The official video for the song is pretty trippy, too - takes me back to late Saturday nights watching MTV's 120 Minutes in the dark on weekends home from college) but I don't like the version of the song it uses as well as the one on the sampler.)

This is a masterpiece, sez I, and a perfect encapsulation of everything I love about Throwing Muses. It's some kind of crazy postmodern reel, driven by this unstoppable and just plain odd rhythmic figure (Narcizo and Langston at their absolute tightest), matched by some serious rhythm-guitar deviltry, with Hersh's banshee vocals cutting through everything. It's like a ghost dance for your head (on your head?). Unbelievable. Turn it up.

Bonus meaningless anecdote: I saw the Muses in a little club in DC in '89 (the 9:30), on the Hunkpapa tour, and I was close enough to the stage that when I got my companions to join me in shouting out requests for "Fish," Kristin gazed out in our general direction and said, "We don't even know that song anymore." However: when they released a live album in '92, "Fish" was on it. I'm not taking credit, but...


Glenn, kenixfan said...

I was at that Hunkpapa show -- see link. Thanks for this nice overview of the Muses. I was/am a big fan too.

Tanuki said...

Hey, thanks for the comment - and the link. It's a great insider's view of the show. I certainly wouldn't have recognized the Replacements guys - it's cool to know they were there. BTW, I seem to remember it was Galaxie 500 opening for the Muses that night: could that be right?

Interesting blog. I wasn't a UM student (I was at St. Mary's College down in southern MD), but every time we made a road trip to College Park you can be sure we visited the Coop.