Throwing Muses: “Juno”
I went through a period of listening to a lot of Throwing Muses in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and still love their music whenever I pull out one of their CDs. When describing their music, the word “quirky” comes to mind. But then again, “quirky” isn’t exactly the right term, because that’s often linked to a certain type of silliness — think They Might Be Giants or Oingo Boingo, for example. And Throwing Muses definitely aren’t silly; while they certainly don’t lack a sense of humor in some of their songs, their subject matter is often too serious to be silly. Not that I always know what the songs are really about…the lyrics are often very stream of consciousness, open to many interpretations.
I think a better term for them would be “off-kilter.” The instruments, singing, and melodies are often just slightly off the beat, off the tune, off of what you might expect from other bands. But it doesn’t seem wrong…most of the time, it works just perfectly. Kristin Hersh, primary songwriter and singer for the group, and now a solo musician with a number of great albums of her own, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the ’80s, around the time she formed the band; her mental illness played a large part in her songwriting during their early albums. Undoubtedly, the songs may have been reflecting what she heard in her head, and “off-kilter” may very well also describe how she felt during that period. But it’s part of her personality, and to this day, very little of the music she has created has been what you might call straightforward. On the first few Throwing Muses, she also had half-sister Tanya Donelly to balance things out a bit. Later to leave to co-found the Breeders with Kim Deal of the Pixies, and then start her own successful band, Belly (who had a hit with “Feed the Tree”), Donelly contributed at least a couple of songs per album and tended a bit more toward a relatively straight-ahead, pop-oriented sound, although she clearly took cues from Hersh in her songwriting and singing.
One of my favorite Throwing Muses songs is “Juno,” from their second album, 1988’s House Tornado. “Juno” is very short, clocking in at just two minutes long, but it pushes forward energetically and packs a quick punch. I’m a sucker for well-recorded acoustic-guitar strumming in a rock song, and that’s the only kind of guitar in the song. The bass slides and loops around the guitar, elevating it even further, and the steady, sometimes tribal drums (with a touch of tambourine) keeps it all together as it coalesces into a wonderful whole. Hersh’s singing here is a perfect example of what I earlier referred to as “off-kilter” — in a way it feels as though she could lose the thread at any moment, but she sings with a purposefulness that lets you know that’s not going to happen. It’s a great two minutes of music.