Well, there’s certainly a lot to unpack in 2020 about the Throwing Muses, vaunted East Coast ’90s alt-rock crew who have now set in our piqued laps a new full-length effort entitled Sun Racket, their first new album in seven years.
Just for normalcy’s sake, I’ll start with the title and cover, the latter of which depicts what looks like a Californian scene, seeming to theoretically along with the title position this as a “concept album.” This would be ironic, though, and seems far fetched, seeing as much of it (namely side A which isn’t too lugubrious to process in a sane mind) also plays as a hypnotic Fall album. That is, the first four songs, especially, have enough ideas, tension and ATTITUDE so as to begin to foster perspectives on Sun Racket of, if not a classic album, perhaps the best TM album since ’96’s Limbo. Actually, it kind of sounds like she started to make like a West Coast “punk” album, only to accrue finger fatigue.
Also, remember how heavy on, like, cheesily maligned ROMANCE Limbo was? And remember how heavy on that exact thing were University, The Real Ramona, Hunkpapa and all of Kristen Hersh’s solo stuff too, for that matter? Disappointingly enough, we get more of that standard, rigid fare on Sun Racket, moments where Hersh is just a little too certain that her relationship hiccups are significantly interesting to us, hence furnishing an opportunity for her to lazily, or just pathetically, languish under them and under deliberate, drawn-out chord progressions, instead of doing something truly virtuosic and gripping, either in guitar runs or lyrics.
But there’s also a lot of things Sun Racket does well and which make it worth listening to for any fan of this band and of alternative rock in general. “Dark Blue,” that is, the opener, among others, while being textural, beautiful and dark, is MULTIFARIOUS, of all things, beginning with a sort of liquefied guitar intro before dousing itself into slow, heavy grunge groove, a la mid-’90s Smashing Pumpkins, or something thereabouts. “Bywater” is full of weird, stupefying creativities (I mean “weird” here in a positive sense, a connotation I’m fully attempting to revive in music criticism, for that matter) like oozy, overdubbed and treated vocals and these strange, incessant “la-la-la”’s that pervade the tune like some puzzling mantra that mesmerizing for its pointed juvenility. A centerpiece of sorts, then, would be “Bo Diddley Bridge,” which seems to be a fictitious PLACE and not to refer to the “Bo Diddley Beat” or to the “bridge” of a song, which is typically the segment connecting the chorus back to the verse. That is, I didn’t get any search results that designated it as an actual structure, and also I’ve never HEARD of it, but I did get like 30 results of this song, which tells me this band is still getting a lot of notoriety. This is refreshing, in a sense.
But the stalwart “Bo Diddley Bridge” of unconventional seven-four time signature and caustic rocking moxie gives way to a mid-section, tracks five through seven, that’s entirely staggering in its moribund depression, a trap I thought their last album Purgatory/Paradisefell into too. Now, an interesting thing to note about this band, though, and about Kristen Hersh in general is that she seems to have an obsession with placing poignant, memorable and even victorious musical modules late within albums (see “Snakeface” on University; “Two Steps” on The Real Ramona; “Night Driving” on Limbo). Along these lines, gosh, “Frosting” is just a great song, getting the energy back going and what’s more piping out of the speakers as a scrappy, throwback type of alternative rock tune, with cheap, garage-y sounding drums and languid but sovereign riffs played on watery, trippy guitars. On the gorgeous “Kay Catherine,” then, we get a welcome spice of piano’s entrance against spare but angular, JUGULAR guitar, and another well-placed shift in time signature, something this album sort of discreetly makes into its commendable calling card.
This is not an album lacking in good songs. What I hear as endemic in this band, though, and with this lead singer Kristen Hersh, is almost like a BENT toward defeat, toward hopelessness, whereas sometimes it takes a little more courage, and makes for a slightly more gratifying product, at that, to stand up and win, in life, just a little. Such an Apollonian conquest would have fit better with the title and album art, too, whereas what we end up getting would be more fitting of a pictorial of rain falling on a heroin syringe. See, I told you it was a throwback to the ’90s.