Throwing Muses – The Real Ramona

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

At one point, I owned at least four Throwing Muses albums, but the truth is that Kristin Hersh’s songwriting is too challenging for me. I’ve seen her live (part of a tour with Grant Lee Phillips and John Doe), and I listened to the episode of Marc Maron’s podcast on which she was a guest, and she is a charming, thoughtful, funny human being – I just have a difficult time with her music. On that podcast she explained that she and Tanya Donnelly (Breeders, Belly) were half-sisters for a few years, when one’s father married the other’s mother. They remained close and were high school classmates in Providence, Rhode Island, both taking up the guitar at about the same time. Hersh was in a car accident and thereafter experienced auditory hallucinations, whereupon she of course began songwriting. The pair secured a drummer and bassist and moved to Boston, where they became the first American band signed by 4AD. A debut produced by Gil Norton (Catherine Wheel, Pixies) and other albums followed. Donnelly formed side project the Breeders with Kim Deal, but remained in Throwing Muses . . . until she did not. In 1991, she left the band, taking bassist Fred Abong with her to form Belly. Hersh has continued Throwing Muses and also released solo albums since then, as well as worked with side project 50 Foot Wave. Drummer David Narcizo works primarily in graphic design these days.

What I Think of This Album

If I am being stingy, this is the only Throwing Muses album worth owning. Some people really like the debut, but you have to be able to accept Kristin Hersh’s volatile, sometimes disturbing songwriting and equally unique voice. I find life to be harrowing enough on its own – I don’t require a complementary soundtrack.

This is all to say that I strongly prefer Tanya Donnelly’s songs – she typically had two per album – and here both “Honeychain” and “Not Too Soon” are standouts. Donnelly’s work is obviously more pop oriented, but the real issue is that the Muses could not function as the vehicle for two different songwriters, mostly because Hersh’s songs are so powerful and commanding that they suck all the oxygen from the room. I can 100% understand Donnelly’s decision to branch out on her own.

“Honeychain” is grounded in a pleasant bass figure over which Donnelly’s angelic vocals float, only to be shattered by a stabbing, distorted guitar, before resolving again to gentle, flowing melodicism. Donnelly shifts her singing style during this piece, from soft and sweet to more nakedly strident – a fine performance. “Not To Soon” is a wonderful cherry bomb of a song, hidden in a cloud of cotton candy. With impressively pounding drums from David Narcizo, and featuring a wordless and seductive vocal refrain, the song chunks its way into your heart, spurred on by lashes of effected guitar. Both tracks hint at the ethereal qualities that would come to define the first Belly album (but not, as we have already discussed, the second).

The remaining ten tracks constitute the punishing tidal wave of Hersh’s neuroses. “Counting Backwards” is notable for its syncopated drumming (Narcizo really does excellent work on this album) and a discordant, snaky guitar line. I can’t figure out what the brief “Him Dancing” is about, but it is unusual and unsettling; the music is excellent, with a Pixies-like drum beat, very nice bass work, and creative layering of different guitar tones and parts. Equally inscrutable is the spindly and spooky “Red Shoes,” which threatens to dissolve into its own bitter plasma and feels way too long at just over three and a half minutes.

Hersh delivers melody by the carload on the propulsive “Graffitti,” with some effective guitar work; this almost sounds like something Donnelly would’ve written (and her harmonies are wonderful). The call to action of “Golden Thing” is of a piece with the first two tracks, again driven by Narcizo’s drumming and more underrated guitar playing. “Ellen West” is dark and unwavering, the sound of Hersh exorcising whatever demons plague her. “Hook In Her Head” is likewise a troubling piece with an extended, Dantean instrumental break, after which Hersh’s voice (literal and figurative) takes over as she spits out terse commands, and then spends several minutes in a frightening whirlwind of atonal sounds, heavyweight drums, and bizarre lyrics. Not for the faint of heart.

“Say Goodbye” straddles the line between the poppier elements of the album and the more typical obtuseness of Hersh’s songwriting, without making either feel notable. “Two Step,” on the other hand, is a disarming ballad, with surreal lyrics delivered in a surprisingly understated fashion, along with a lovely guitar line. Instrumental “Dylan” feels like a placeholder, though it isn’t unlikeable. It’s remarkable that thirty years on, this album still sounds as uncompromising and fresh as ever.

Dennis Herring (Camper Van Beethoven, Modest Mouse) produced; Paul Q. Kolderie did some remixing on “Red Shoes.”

The Best Thing About This Album

David Narcizo’s drumming is outstanding.

Release Date

February, 1991

The Cover Art

I’m a fan of the black border and the font. The photograph doesn’t do much for me.

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