Forgotten Albums: Throwing Muses, “Hunkpapa”

One of the good/not-always-so-good things about Altgeld Hall’s proximity to Campustown was the constant temptation to slide on over to Record Service to check out the list of new and upcoming releases, gander at the Hot 100, plot future acquisitions, etc. The distance between our office in the basement and RS’s blue awning on Green Street was maybe a couple hundred yards, so visits would  happen at least twice a week on average. Yeah, I may not have had too much of a life then…

There are plenty of albums from the late 80s I didn’t purchase that I can still visualize being on display at the Service. One was The Fat Skier, an EP released in 87 (or 88? I’m seeing conflicting info as I cast about the Web) by a three-woman, one-man college rock quartet from New England, Throwing Muses. Don’t know that I heard it played in store, but I noticed it for weeks and kept the band’s name in mind.

I noticed them in earnest again in early 89, when “Dizzy” started being featured on 120 Minutes. A brief investigation into their new release Hunkpapa led to a purchase, probably via a music service like Columbia House or RCA (alas, I didn’t always buy local). It wound up in moderate rotation for a couple of years and was a harbinger of sorts of the more outré stuff I investigated over the next 3-5 years. Noticing “Dizzy” in the top 10 on the 4/1/89 Modern Rock Tracks chart a couple of weeks ago got me to dust Hunkpapa off for a few spins; let’s listen to some favorites from it.

Things kick off with the relatively subdued “Devil’s Roof.” Lead Muse Kristin Hersh’s voice isn’t what you’d call pretty, and her lyrics are often a bit dense to cut through—about all I know is that our narrator’s husband is AWOL—but there’s a nice minimalist approach here I find engaging.

Reviews of their early work note shifting tempo is a frequent feature. We get that aplenty in the next track, “Bea,” a first-person account from a prostitute.

Song 3 is the single. I think what’s on offer is attractive, but everything I’m reading now indicates Hersh has long disliked it as a too-intentional effort at commercial viability.

Hersh’s stepsister Tanya Donnelly contributes two songs to Hunkpapa. “Dragonhead” starts off with little more than noise but changes gears into a charming 6/8 second half. Donnelly’s vocals are much sweeter, even if the lyrics are as off-kilter as Hersh’s.

“Fall Down” is my favorite song on the album. The back-and-forth between the short verses and brief chorus, that guitar noise going on behind it all…fantastic. Out of all these, it’s the one pointing closest to one of the directions I was being led in my sonic explorations.

I liked Hunkpapa well enough overall, I suppose, but apparently not so much to keep buying future Muses releases. (“Counting Backwards,” off the follow-up The Real Ramona is a nice song, though.) Donnelly, who’d joined Pixies bassist Kim Deal on a side venture in the interim, left after Ramona to front her new group Belly. Their debut disk Star contains two of my favorites from 93: “Feed the Tree” and “Slow Dog.”  Hersh soldiered on with the band until 97; before things wound down, they had a decently big alternative hit, “Bright Yellow Gun.”

(Absolutely trivial and useless aside: Donnelly wrote two completely different songs called “Angel” for Hunkpapa and Star. In 94 I made a mix tape for my friend Greg called Then and Now; the theme was pairs of songs from each artist included, one older and one current-ish. Guess which two songs I selected to represent Donnelly? What’s more, both John Hiatt and Kirsty MacColl had pretty awesome songs entitled “Angel” on their 93 disks—those also made the tape…)

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