Throwing Muses' first effort in six years is propelled by urgency. Recorded quick and dirty over three weekends, this reunion of sorts marks the return of the power trio first heard on 1992's Red Heaven (co-founder Kristin Hersh, original member David Narcizo on drums, and mainstay Bernard Georges on bass), with prodigal Muse Tanya Donelly contributing backing vocals on six tracks. Throwing Muses unfolds in a single breathlessly exhilarating rush, never once pausing for air. Meanwhile, Hersh's sixth solo acoustic disc, The Grotto — released on the same day and recorded with Howe Gelb (Giant Sand) on piano and Andrew Bird (Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire) on violin — is as unhurried and introspective as Throwing Muses is heady and insistent.
On the surface, the two CDs seem stylistically opposed. In fact, they're two sides of the same coin. Founded by teenagers Hersh and Donelly in 1983, Throwing Muses survived rocky fortunes and numerous lineup changes (Donelly left in 1992 to form altrock darlings Belly) only to bow out in 1997 for purely financial reasons. The band's spiritual and musical forebears have always been more along the lines of X, Hüsker Dü, Firehose, and the Violent Femmes than the wan goth mopers it got lumped in with during its early years with 4AD. This new album hearkens back to those art-punk roots, and the result has the unvarnished feel of a demo.
Throwing Muses features the band at its most raw and lacerating. The group may have been apart for six years, but it sounds positively tight. Album opener “Mercury” tears out of the speakers with wild abandon, its propulsive, jagged guitar leavened by the complementary interplay of Hersh's earthy vocals and Donelly's airy counterharmony. On the feral and furious “Pandora's Box,” Hersh's banshee wail matches and surpasses her own virtuoso guitar work. When she sings, “Every frenzy is real/ Skin is singing, hands are burning/ Everybody is healed,” on “Solar Dip,” her voice displays a new kind of authority.
Still, Throwing Muses may be too consistent for its own good; midway through, a distinct lack of textural variety sets in. “Speed and Sleep” and “Portia” certainly could have benefited from a little studio gloss. Ultimately, though, what the songs lack in complexity they more than make up for in sheer power.
The Grotto, on the other hand, is intoxicating and intoxicated, a lush and sensuous Southern Gothic. Underscored by Hersh's hushed, haunted vocals and concise, modest guitar, its songs are seemingly writ small, but the emotions are big and messy. Bird's mournful violin and Gelb's oddly sprightly piano, utilized with great restraint, enhance the album's sense of elegiac disquiet.
Hersh's songs have never been about easy answers. They're fearless, risking chaos in the pursuit of hard-won catharsis, mingling the bitter and the sweet. “Vitamins V,” seemingly about a marriage falling apart moment by banal moment, ends on a note of hopefulness: “This lukewarm catastrophe/ Is a recipe for rebirth.” On “Vanishing Twin,” she sighs, “That's the way the cookie bounces, in spite of me,” imparting her own brand of wry, fractured wisdom.
Taken together, Throwing Muses and The Grotto add up to a satisfying whole. The Grotto is the dusky reflection of the extroverted, buoyant Throwing Muses, a shadow sister to its sunnier twin.