Anyone who has followed Throwing Muses throughout their 30-year career knows that the band’s music has always been a step away from convention. Although the group’s (at times) deceptively Poppy music hinted at a mainstream breakthrough a couple of times over the years (most notably on 1991’s MTV-embraced The Real Ramona), successfully transforming a lyricist/performer like frontwoman Kristin Hersh (known to deliver lyrics like “I have a fish nailed to a cross on my apartment wall/ It sings to me with glassy eyes and quotes from Kafka” with a thousand-yard stare) into a Pop princess was never truly in the cards.
Ultimately, Throwing Muses are a band popular enough to find work on the road, but not successful enough to rise above sleeping on dirty couches. This truth is the backdrop of Purgatory/Paradise (It Books), a CD/book combo that serves as a road diary/soundtrack of the group’s experiences traveling in the Mid Leagues. Not surprisingly, most of it isn’t pretty at all: In Boston, Hersh and bassist Bernard Georges rush to the aid of a bouncer stabbed in the street, only to have a fearful Hersh later wonder if the glitter on the band shirts they used to stop the bleeding made the man’s injury worse. In Texas, a drugged and drunken crowd chants her name and rocks the band’s tour bus as she struggles to find comfort in the arms of her baby son. And of course, those dirty couches are everywhere. (As Hersh writes in the book: “‘I coulda sworn I saw that couch in Milwaukee,’ I thought, staring down at the stained hunting scene stretched over a seat cushion in Denver.”)
Every band touring at the Muses’ level has a million stories like these, but no group has turned them into a package quite like Purgatory/Paradise. Housing a disc with 32 songs in just 67 minutes, the book includes short essays and stories about each track and instructions on how to download goodies like an instrumental version of the album and a commentary track by Hersh and drummer David Narcizo. The crowdfunded recording finds the band unburdened with the restrictions of working under a company’s watch. In the Muses’ case, this means producing a series of musical fragments (some clocking in at under a minute) as opposed to a full-on album with a concrete beginning, middle and end. Naturally, Purgatory/Paradise’s strongest musical moments (“Sunray Venus,” “Film,” “Opiates,” “Lazy Eye” and “Milan”) resemble complete songs. When the band hit their target with these tracks, they are absolutely exquisite: Hersh’s distinctive voice is in top form, while the criminally-underrated Narcizo drives the proceedings with his typical power and finesse.
Away from these instant highs, Purgatory/Paradise takes considerable study and patience to fully understand and appreciate. Without the structure of a music business machine at least trying to smooth over the band’s more self-indulgent tendencies, the listener/reader is left with songs that drift in and out, lyrics that sometimes seem to start mid-thought and (in the case of the audio commentary) in-jokes and stories that mean more to the creators than they ever could to the outside world. (Do we really need to hear Hersh talk on the phone with the guy who mastered the album about the brownies she’s going to send him?) While none of the Muses’ past work is what you’d categorize as easily digestible, Purgatory/Paradise is downright difficult. But it is also refreshingly daring and one of 2013’s best releases. The listener/reader getting lost from time to time is a very small price to pay to experience a band allowing themselves to fully exist and create in their own world. More artists should try it.
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