Graded on a Curve: Throwing Muses, Purgatory/Paradise

In October 2013 Throwing Muses released their ninth album and first in ten years on CD in tandem with a book of photos, artwork, lyrics, and short essays by leader Kristin Hersh. An atypical yet smart combination, and in a swell turn of events the Athens, GA label Happy Happy Birthday To Me is issuing Purgatory/Paradise in a 2LP edition of 500 copies. Intrigued parties who missed it should not dally to investigate, for it finds the three-piece of Hersh, drummer Dave Narcizo, and bassist Bernard Georges in skilled, vibrant form.

Another encroaching year’s end foretells many things, and a certainty is a surge of Best Lists. I enjoy reading them almost as much as writing them, as I’ve done a few times here at TVD. What’s important is to not take them too seriously, in part because nobody, not even rapscallions and dandies living lives of utter leisure, can absorb everything released across the span of a dozen calendar pages, and most assuredly not by the 31st of December.

For instance, I’ve just recently become acquainted, roughly 12 months after its emergence, with Throwing Muses’ outstanding Purgatory/Paradise. Now, I could chalk up the delay to the music’s unusual connection to the publishing industry described above, but that wouldn’t be accurate. I’ll simply confess to not keeping up with the singer-guitarist-bandleader’s activity post-University back in ‘95. As stated, one cannot hear it all. Bluntly, I’m very pleased to have belatedly caught up with this record.

Last year’s dual release is frankly a savvy idea, one I’m surprised hasn’t been employed with more frequency. And I do look forward to examining Purgatory/Paradise’s accompanying tome, for clearly the text will provide scores of insights into a rather unique collection; however, this review is specifically concerned with those 32 tracks. Not to worry, for their uniqueness stands up easily on its own.

Spread over four sides totaling nearly 70 minutes, the selections offer prolonged exposure to the long-serving triangular lineup of Throwing Muses. For those like me (and I can’t be alone), folks that basically lost tabs on the group in the mid-‘90s, the sharply-honed presentation here is refreshing and even a little startling. Svelte and limber like a power trio as the desire to raise the roof and blow eardrums is kept in check, in purely musical terms Purgatory/Paradise possesses one of the finest of all things; veteran muscle.

Upon first spin “Smokey Hands 1” registered as a prologue to the speedier, lengthier “Morning Birds 1,” though in fact the opener’s brevity is shared by many of the tracks. Additionally, the numeral 1 in the titles establishes differing versions of numerous tunes in this set. On one hand the sense of a rough draft is reinforced, or if one prefers a non-literary analogy, the often substantially divergent readings promote the feeling of an artwork in progress.

Even better put, Purgatory/Paradise connects like a composite snapshot of an album’s components just prior to the process of whittling-down and finalization. It’s not hard to imagine this batch of songs in significantly edited form (i.e. a standard record), though that shouldn’t suggest shortening and removing would actually be a benefit (the planet’s kinda burdened by standard records). Indeed, the assemblage seems geared to a non-trad combination of flow and meticulously sequenced contrasts. Interestingly, “Sleepwalking 2,” obviously a latter materialization, appears early in the program.

Featuring the passionate edge of Hersh’s mature voice giving way to her tough solo, the cut is briefer and otherwise distinct from “Sleepwalking 1,” that chrome-plated groove machine not arriving until 27 tracks deep. Just as enlightening is the comparison of Purgatory/Paradise’s entries by length. For instance, “Sunray Venus” combines confident Alt-rock songwriting and punkish heft inside the fleshed-out running-time of a radio single (20 years ago it might’ve been). It’s followed by the concise stripped-down sliver of indie rock “Cherry Candy 1.”

And while the majority of the tunes are delivered through the axes of guitar bass and drums, occasional extra instrumentation lends the right amount of diversity; for evidence, seek the keyboard spot in “Film,” the flute-driven near jazz-rock fragment of “Folding Fire 2” and “Terra Nova,” which even with a string section retains an attractively skeletal compositional form.

A wide range is covered, even in a solitary cut. “Opiates” is derived from classic sources, namely ‘60s rock, hints of power pop and a smidge of bar band moxie in the guitar break, while “Freesia” reminds me a bit of Helium exploring a bluesy zone. And “Curtains 1,” “Triangle Quanitico,” and “Morning Birds 2” pack a combo punch of slim durations that tactically recall the precedent of the Minutemen (as does “Sleepwalking 2”).

Also appealing is “Lazy Eye,” its atmospheric opening leading into soulful uptempo strum-rock cultivating a ‘90s alt/indie feel, a characteristic evident in “Milan” and “Quick” as well. Of course, the sound’s success herein is related at least partially to Hersh playing no small role in the definition of that era’s musical scheme, but just as crucial is her palpable engagement with the songs.

And like “Sleepwalking 2,” “Blurry 2” illuminates the act of paring down over time. Elsewhere, “Bluff” and “Smokey Hands 2” exude a fragmentary nature similar to “Folding Fire 2,” though at this stage “Walking Talking,” its 62 seconds all preparation for an ignition slyly denied, is my favorite of the shorter pieces. Not far behind is the segue of “Smokey Hands 2” into the chunkiness of “Speedbath,” that tune teaming up well with the meaty indie riffing of “Static” and the nimble dynamics of “Slippershell,” said track sporting some of Purgatory/Paradise’s sweetest guitar soloing.

Both takes of “Dripping Trees” are maybe the closest the album gets to gestures towards pop, as the succinctness of each complicates the scenario somewhat. “Clark’s Nutcracker” also engages with melodicism (and the return of subtle strings) as the trio configuration keeps all three members squarely in the equation, though Hersh is front and center for “Glass Cats,” the 2LP’s meditative finale.

Due to all these details, Purgatory/Paradise is fairly resistant to casual listening. Please comprehend that statement as the antithesis of a flaw; particularly when stacked up next to what her ‘90s Alt-rock peers The Pixies have been doing lately, Hersh’s achievement here is borderline amazing. In their second physical manifestation in a year’s time, these songs resist any travels through humdrum retail motions.

I’ll always hold a special fondness for Throwing Muses’ early 4AD material (I’m talking ’86’s self-titled debut and ‘88’s House Tornado), but it’s plain that in her fourth decade Kristin Hersh is making the strongest music of her career.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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