Throwing Muses is one of those band’s that’s pretty visible in the recent history of alternative rock. There’s a name recognition there, and chances are that recognition stretches out to Kristen Hersh and Tanya Donelly. We know these people, we know this band, but we talk more about their connection to other bands (the Pixies and the Breeders in particular) than their own work. At least that’s where time has taken much of the conversation, which is too bad. Because there’s some great music to dig into.
If the group’s standout 1991 album The Real Ramona was an angular, harsh but subtly textured shot in the arm for rock music, then University was its pristine younger sister. By 1995, Tanya Donelly had left the band and the group was pared down to a trio — Hersh on guitar and vocals, Bernard Georges on bass, and David Narcizo on drums. The double-guitar attack was gone, the harsh-and-angelic interplay of Donelly and Hersh’s singing: also gone. Not only that, but they were three years removed from their last record, the pared-down muscle of 1992’s Red Heaven, since the suits at the record company talked Hersh into putting out her solo debut, Hips and Makers, out before University. So there was some anticipation coming off the lean rock of the album’s predecessor. The band has strived on without Donelly, but where they would go was still unknown.
University, though, is anything but pared down. In fact, it sort of sets up the band as a unique power trio, since Hersh and the great rhythm section use studio sheen and thick layering not to sand down the strength of these songs but rather to enhance it. The guitars are sometimes drenched in distortion (see “Start”) but mostly the hooks here are both sharp and languid — both the icicle and the cold water dripping off of it in the sun. “Bright Yellow Gun” may announce itself on brittle guitar chords and propulsive rhythms, but it’s when the heavily wah-pedaled lead murks up the track that it realizes its full power. “Shimmer” is a bit more cleared out, but the tight distorted guitar just clears space for Hersh to really belt it out, with just the faintest echo expanding her already impossibly huge voice.
University is a powerful album because it doesn’t really present itself as such. Hersh — who claims that music crowds up her brain after a car accident left her with a serious head injury — doesn’t conjure noise and chaos here so much as she corrals those elements into something wholly under control, something that may simmer with punk tension but ultimately relies on a more mature patience. “Crabtown” strips all the hard-strum drive out of their sound and leaves nothing but the overcast atmosphere that floats around the record. “That’s All You Wanted” is moody and smudged, but set straight by the keening piano and violin runs. The whole album walks deals in both beauty and power well, but never makes them opposites. The rough and the sublime aren’t clashing elements, they’re parts meshed together. University is sublimely rough; it is roughly sublime.
It all comes out in the expansive closer, “Fever Few.” Hersh insists that “she breaks the ice, she melts the snow,” and we see it all here — the cold, the sharp bite, the low heat that makes it all slide and liquify. Georges bass spins thick circles around Hersh’s guitar, while Narcizo creates all kinds of space with his huge yet spare drums. The song swells and contracts, ebbs and flows, creates it own inertia and inevitability, and yet still surprises us at every turn. It’s an excess of sound, but it is never excessive.
And so it is with University, an album with a sound that seems to undercut its title. Hersh and company had been going since 1981, and by 1995, with this, their definitive statement, they proved this wasn’t about a learning curve. More than any of their rock and roll contemporaries, the players in Throwing Muses comprised a professional band, one that didn’t need to hide behind all the distortion, one that didn’t need to tear it all down. If there’s a lesson in University, it’s that this kind of sweet, melodic building can be just as powerful as the sneering power chord, sometimes even moreso. Now, 25 years after the band’s debut album, with a landscape full of garage dwellers drowning in feedback and tape hiss, it seems a timely lesson once again, and one worth relearning.