2013 Favorites: Throwing Muses – “Purgatory/Paradise”

I think everyone interested in music should watch this portion of an interview with Kristin Hersh, which explains some of her thoughts on the music industry and Purgatory/Paradise, the first new Throwing Muses album in ten years. Among my favorite quotes: “Now Throwing Muses is in the studio again, making, I swear, the best record of our career because there’s nobody telling us that we’re supposed to suck” and “I don’t want to expand my audience; I want to refine it.” Purgatory/Paradise is definitely created with the latter idea in mind: the album also comes with a 64-page book that includes track-by-track commentary from Hersh and drummer Dave Narcizo along with photos of the band, making it literally seem like a gift to the band’s longtime listeners (who helped fund the project using Hersh’s CASH Music organization).

Like many bands before them, Throwing Muses have released what you could call a comeback album, with all the fears and reservations that term entails. But in an age full of half-assed reunions and nostalgia-based cash-ins, what makes Purgatory/Paradise so great is that it always looks forward — with nobody telling them they’re supposed to suck, the band is free to make some of the most original and exciting music of their careers. There are echos of their previous work throughout (along with Hersh’s music as a solo artist), but a lot of it is entirely new territory.

Purgatory/Paradise is immediately distinctive from other Throwing Muses albums (and other albums in general) because of its structure. Its 67-minute run time is sprawled over 32 tracks, many of which are under two minutes long, including several that resemble individual songs or ideas split into two parts, which Hersh likened to someone hammering the record with a mallet. Melodies quickly come and go, then suddenly return later in the album like a ghost that is haunting you. In some cases, like “Sleepwalking 1” and “Sleepwalking 2,” the second part appears before the first part. Connections between these two-parters vary: some feel like extensions of the first song, while others feel like re-imaginings that are thematically linked. This really excited the music nerd in me, who likes stuff like album sequencing and construction — playing this album on shuffle doesn’t really work, because the pieces are meant to come and go at such specific times. It also made Purgatory/Paradise one of the albums I got lost in most this year, as I attempted to piece together its fractured puzzle with each listen.

My favorite two-parter is probably “Morning Birds,” which comes roaring out of the gate in the first part with classic early-90s Throwing Muses guitar pop before shifting into an atmospheric acoustic coda that is one of the album’s most beautiful moments. A few tracks later, the acoustic part picks up again in “Morning Birds 2.” Purgatory/Paradise really feels like a career-spanning effort by the band, and these songs show the full range of styles and emotions they’ve picked up over the years.

Amid all the shattered fragments, Purgatory/Paradise does make room for traditional pop songs. “Sunray Venus” shows a rougher side of the band with an intense vocal by Hersch, while “Opiates” displays their more subdued side. “Slippershell” is the band at their most dynamic, with quiet verses exploding into a noisy chorus. Hersch’s lyrics are as cryptic as ever, which makes it hard to try to pin any specific interpretation on these songs — sometimes I like music that does that instead of trying to hit you over the head with a specific meaning.

I’ve always considered Throwing Muses to be one of the very few bands that is truly original, in part because Hersh’s voice (her literal singing voice and authorial voice) is so different from what I typically hear in music. So it’s not too surprising that Purgatory/Paradise is an album that looked and sounded like nothing else in 2013. The surprising part, for me anyway, was just how good it was — it has instantly become my favorite release by the band since 1991’s The Real Ramona, and it’s one of the few albums this year I felt really passionate about. I find it really inspirational when a band in Throwing Muses’ position chooses to continue pushing the boundaries of their art when they could easily feel content with what they’ve done in the past. While it is really geared towards people who already like the band, I hope people who haven’t heard them still give Purgatory/Paradise a shot — this is an album that deserves to be heard.

2013 Favorites: Courtney Barnett

This is normally the time when I’d write my obligatory list of my favorite albums of the year. I won’t be doing that this year, for a couple of reasons. The first is that lists have been permanently ruined for me by the demonic overlords who run Buzzfeed and every other lazy clickbaity site, to the point that just seeing numbers in order on my screen is enough to fill me with rage and contempt. As far as I’m concerned, lists are now tools of Satan, and you will no longer see them here. The second reason is that I found myself getting extremely disconnected from music this year, and even if I did want to make a list to please Satan, I’m not sure if I could even think of ten (much less 25 or 50 — how do people like so many things?) albums that made much of an impact on me.

I’m not entirely sure what caused this disconnect — I’ve always been relatively picky, but I can’t remember being so consistently unmoved by music like I was for most of this year. It’s possible that I’m just already a jaded old person and have given up and entered the feared “music will never be like it was” stage of my life. I continued to follow music discussion and writing, but mostly found myself being increasingly annoyed at which bands were getting covered and which ones weren’t. It legitimately felt like the worse a band was this year, the more hype they got and the more people talked about them and wrote about them, and it kind of made me feel like I was going insane. The whole world was trying to convince me to like all these bands that could not possibly be less interesting. (People trying to tell me who or what I should care about is one of my biggest pet peeves.)

I graduated from college this spring and spent the rest of the year procrastinating on entering the real world and being generally unproductive and useless. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do or how I wanted to do it, and all of these feelings and fears ended up paralyzing me until suddenly I’d let the whole year go by without really doing anything, which (I’ve been told) is bad. I spent most days by myself in the suburbs being a slacker and internally debating how I was going to ever become a semi-functioning adult (still working on it — if anyone has tips on this, feel free to leave a comment or something). On one of these days, I opened up Twitter after probably waking up at some absurdly late hour and came across a link to a song called “Avant Gardener.”

I had never heard of Courtney Barnett before this, but was immediately enamored with this song. I loved the simple rock instrumentation, Barnett’s deadpan almost-speaking delivery, and especially the lyrics, which described that sort of suburban suffocation feeling I had with an eerie level of accuracy. In a year where I often felt like I wasn’t connecting with music, “Avant Gardener” was the one song that really spoke to me and reminded me of why I loved music in the first place. Beyond my personal connection to it, it’s also a tremendous piece of craft from Barnett, with tons of witty lines and a surprisingly compelling story considering it’s about someone freaking out while gardening.

Barnett is a 25 year-old from Melbourne, Australia, who defines her music as “slacker garage pop.” Her first two EPs, I’ve Got a Friend Called Emily Farris and How to Carve a Carrot Into a Rose, were compiled on The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, which was one of my favorite releases of the year. Barnett’s self-described slackerdom is fitting, because what I really love about these songs is that they don’t sound like they’re trying too hard to win you over. Instead, Barnett is able to find great power in simplicity. The lyrics are incredibly smart and witty without sounding like someone who is desperately trying to appear intelligent. Her singing is not what one would call show-offy, but it’s the perfect fit for the droll lyrics and the music.

“Don’t Apply Compression Gently,” one of my other favorite songs on the album, is a good example of this. The music is fairly straight-forward, and the lyrics are so simple that they could be text messages (I even saw one article saying they actually were texts, but have no idea if this is true). Yet I found it to be a very poignant song, because everything fits together well and because of Barnett’s understated charm as a vocalist, particularly in the closing refrain: “I may not be 100% happy, but at least I’m not with you.” One of the other album highlights, “History Eraser,” is in a similar free-wheeling style to “Avant Gardener,” and shows Barnett’s ability to craft interesting narratives about seemingly mundane topics — in this case, a song beginning with “I got drunk and fell asleep atop the sheets” spins into an amusing day-in-the-life story.

There are approximately a zillion of these sorts of folk-rock albums released every year, many of which I find one-dimensional and boring. What made this one work so well for me was Barnett’s personality — her songs are so smart, funny, and true, and I guess she just seems like a cool person who I’d like to get to know better. Hopefully we’ll all get that chance as she releases more music in the future.