Song: "Call Me"
Album: Throwing Muses
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Though in modern times, it has become known as “alternative music,” in the decade before it was given this name, that certain brand of rock and roll was more often referred to as “college rock,” and in many ways, it had a more negative image. Largely coming out of the post-punk movement, bands started to splinter off in all directions, and bringing out various incarnations of the hard rock sound, the wild sounds that filled the 1990’s were birthed. While “hair metal” may have ended up as the decades’ public persona, it was the “underground” rock bands that truly created the musical setting for the next generation. Bands like R.E.M., Echo & The Bunnymen, and Hüsker Dü all made names for themselves during this time due to their unique take on rock music, and yet it was a group of relative “youngsters” that produced one of the most earth-shattering records in history. Started by a pair of high school friends, few bands shaped modern music and brought the “college rock” sound to the mainstream than Providence, Rhode Island’s own Throwing Muses. The fact that their self-titled 1986 debut was the first American band to ever be released on the legendary 4AD record label should have been enough proof of their greatness, yet every moment of the album remains as stunning and powerful as it sounded upon first release. Filled with an unparalleled ferocity and overall uneasy mood, Throwing Muses serves as a unique bridge between the aggression of punk rock and the introspection of folk. Perhaps the groups’ finest recording, there are few songs that define the band in every aspect as accurately as Throwing Muses’ 1986 song, “Call Me.”
As the introduction to the bands’ first record, “Call Me” is an all-out warning that after hearing this album, nothing will ever be the same again. It wastes no time in diving head-first into the dizzying guitar progression, and the playing here of Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donelly quickly set the standard for the new sound they were founding. There is an amazing urgency in their playing, and the agitated bass from Leslie Langston only adds to the mood set forth by the guitars. Though the playing of these three is nothing short of superb, it is the seemingly nervous, strangely scattered drumming of Dave Narcizo that is the most jarring aspect of the music. The quartet move as a single, destructive unit, constantly pushing the energy and gloomy mood harder, and then bring an even bigger shock when they suddenly sift into one of the most beautiful rock-waltzes ever captured on tape. The suddenly grand and oddly charming progression, with the addition of sleigh bells, somehow works in amazing fashion on “Call Me.” Along with this unexpected shift in tempo, the guitars begin a wild, twisting progression that lasts until the end of the song. It is in this juxtaposition that one can clearly hear how the well-documented mental issues of Hersh were reflected in the music of Throwing Muses. It is in this part of “Call Me” that one can easily draw a line to bands like Joy Division, as even in this more melodic section, the overall aggression behind the music is never lost.
Along with their distinctive dual-guitar sound, the team of Hersh and Donelly were equally stunning in their shared vocals. Though Hersh write “Call Me” and handles a majority of the lead vocals, it is often the atypical harmonies from Donelly that give the song its massive depth and gloomy, unsettling mood. Throughout “Call Me,” Hersh brings an extraordinary combination of sung and spoken vocals, and at times, when she is almost yelping, her full commitment to the words and emotions of the song seems to be almost overwhelming her. Nearly all of her singing is underlined by an odd trembling in her voice, and this again can be a sign of just how much of her soul Hersh was willing to bare through her performances. When Donelly joins in throughout the song, the result is one of the most uniquely hypnotizing vocals in history, and one can easily hear traces of Donelley’s later bands on “Call Me.” However, regardless of who is singing, there is a murkiness that pervades, and it is this aspect that would define the music of Throwing Muses. Holding nothing back and clearly exorcising her own demons, the words Hersh penned here run from the philosophical to deeply personal, and it is lines like, “…I'm in a deep hole I've dug myself five feet deep…” that offer a small peek into her mental state. However, it is the final three stanzas of “Call Me” that show the deep-rooted pain in Hersh, and they hit with a power unlike any other words ever sung. With her completely commitment to every aspect of the song, along with the sincere words she sings, “Call Me” is a musical catharsis that remains unparalleled to this day.
Though many musicians have used their songs to deal with their own issues, few did so with as much potency and almost painful honesty as one finds in the writing of Kristin Hersh. With their self-titled debut still standing as one of the most uniquely brilliant records in history, one can easily make the case that modern music would not exist in its current form without the work of Throwing Muses. Quickly showing just how wide a range of skills they possessed as a band, Throwing Muses blends together the moodiness of post-punk with the beauty of folk, and then pushes the combined sound into something completely indescribable. While there were a number of bands that were thrown into the genre of “college rock,” the fact of the matter is, few of these bands had a similar sound to one another, and it is this independent spirit that would become the “alternative” sound at the onset of the 1990’s. Setting the standard with their very first song on their first major release, Throwing Muses were instantly catapulted to the forefront of the “underground” music movement, and the energy and anguish found on “Call Me” is truly something that must be experienced to be properly understood and appreciated. Whether it is the way in which the guitars and voices of Hersh and Donelly intertwine, or the anxious, jittery tone set by the rhythm section, Throwing Muses clearly understood the best way to convey the emotions in their music. With its jarring tempo changes and trend-setting musical arrangement, there has simply never been another song that quite compares to the overall impact of Throwing Muses 1986 song, “Call Me.”