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DOWN TWO BUT TOUGHER THAN EVER : Throwing Muses Has Lost Half Its Members but None of Its Dark Intensity

August 13, 1992|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

From the sound of Throwing Muses' new album, "Red Heaven," attrition has made the group not weaker, but tougher.

The alternative rock band from Newport, R.I., split in half last year after touring behind its excellent fourth album, "The Real Ramona." Kristin Hersh, the main singer-songwriter, and drummer David Narcizo went one way, keeping the Throwing Muses name. Guitarist Tanya Donelly, who had been Hersh's friend since they were 8 years old, went the other, taking along bassist Fred Abong to form a new band called Belly.

Instead of replacing the departed members, Hersh and Narcizo decided to keep Throwing Muses a creative duo. Bassist Leslie Langston, who had left the band in 1989, was recruited to play on the new record. Live, Hersh and Narcizo now are joined by bassist Bernard Georges, a former Muses roadie.

"Red Heaven," the first work to have emerged since the split, sounds like the completion of Throwing Muses' unusual, backward development, in which a band that began in a swirl of striking complexity has moved to simplify its sound.

The Muses emerged in 1986 with a brilliant album on the British label, 4AD. The hyperbole-prone U.K. pop periodical Melody Maker actually was pretty close to the mark when it heralded "Throwing Muses" as "the finest debut album of the '80s and a very beautiful, contorted mystery."

Maybe not the finest debut album (after all, R.E.M.'s "Murmur" had an '80s debut, too), but certainly a chillingly beautiful exploration of harrowing realms of emotional extremity and psychological tribulation--the emotional turf on which Throwing Muses by and large has continued to dwell.

And "Throwing Muses" (still available only as an import) certainly was a contorted mystery--mysterious because Hersh's songs operated on an abstract, symbolic level; contorted because the Muses' musical method was to dart nervously in every direction with sudden shifts of mood, dynamics and tempo.

With "Red Heaven" the mystery remains but the contortions have pretty much been straightened out (a process that actually began two albums ago, on 1989's "Hunkpapa"). Much of the album is straight-on, crunchy garage rock, with Hersh asserting herself during meaty, noisy guitar breaks while Narcizo hammers hard on the beat.

In the past, Throwing Muses' compulsive, circling motion and darting cutbacks formed the ideal sonic landscape for songs in which Hersh often seemed to be racing and dodging to avoid being consumed by inner demons. On "Red Heaven," she sounds tired of fleeing; with the rhythmic frenzy gone, she sounds determined--or resigned--to facing her problems at close quarters.

Precisely what those problems might be is something you'll never glean from a Throwing Muses album. Hersh has often said that she wants no part of autobiographical songwriting. While her songs flow from personal experience, she says, they should take a more indeterminate shape that allows listeners to seize on the feelings rather than the true-life details that may underlie them. The new album may contain a song called "Rosetta Stone" (built on a surging, Velvet Underground-style riff), but there's nothing in it that will help a listener translate its author's emotional hieroglyphics into linear narrative.

Donelly, who had been Hersh's less-prolific songwriting counter part, had been responsible for some airy, pretty tunes such as "Angel" (from "Hunkpapa") and "Not Too Soon" and "Honeychain," her two strong contributions to "The Real Ramona."

The new Muses album could have used some of her leavening. Hersh does muster the occasional dash of bright, multitracked harmony (or, at the end of "Dio," a nice duet harmony flight with Bob Mould, the former Husker Du member).

The album's first single, "Firepile," is informed by a chunky, boppy beat and psychedelic-'60s fuzztone guitar that give it a light subtext despite the characteristic nervous alarm in Hersh's voice.

But "Red Heaven" mainly collects dark and murky feelings, culminating in the concluding "Carnival Wig," which sounds like a tour through a dank psychic basement, or perhaps a crypt.

Impenetrable as they may be, Hersh's stark musings always have seemed far more real and intensely felt than the accessible, fashionably turned-out gloom of Morrissey or the Cure's Robert Smith.

While Throwing Muses has always rocked well enough to reward those who just want to be jolted by some edgy music, it never has been a band for those seeking light entertainment.

But if you care to probe around in the band's indeterminate recesses, the experience can prove illuminating.

Who: Throwing Muses.

When: Tuesday, Aug. 18, at 9:30 p.m.

Where: Bogart's, in the Marina Pacifica Mall, 6288 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Long Beach.

Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (I-405) Freeway to the Seal Beach Boulevard exit, go south, then right onto Westminster Avenue and right again onto Pacific Coast Highway. Bogart's is just past the intersection of Westminster and PCH, on the left.

Wherewithal: $15.

Where to call: (310) 594-8975.

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