One of my very favourite sub-scenes of music is the interweaving family tree that includes The Pixies, Throwing Muses, The Breeders and Belly. I could write endlessly about any of these bands, even about individual songs, so I am going to try to strictly limit myself to a very potted history and include a few example videos by each band, as well as a diagram that explains a great deal more (well, that’s if you can read it…it’s sharp as a pin on my computer, but the quality doesn’t seem to be so great in Blogger). The diagram, too, could be endless, and there is much that is not incuded…but that should inform a healthy comments debate of additions eh?
Recording during the late 1980s and the 1990s, I believe that these artists, and in particular The Pixies, really added something new to the musical landscape; and they have certainly been very influential on other musicians.
I shall start with The Pixies, as they are probably the best known of the bunch, and are really the ‘daddy’ of this scene (although Throwing Muses were around before The Pixies formed). Headed by Charles Michael Kitridge Thompson IV (!) under the pseudonym Black Francis, they were formed in Boston in 1986. Their full-length debut, Surfer Rosa, recorded by Steve Albini, was released in 1988 (following the release of EP Come On Pilgrim), and was quietly successful, particularly in the UK (more so than in their native US), and won both Melody Maker and Sounds’ Album Of The Year title. They supported fellow Bostonians Throwing Muses on tour early on in their career, which introduced them to industry professionals and the wider public.
I would describe their sound as alternative, guitar-based surf punk. Their albums displayed a wide range of song styles and The Pixies seemed to have a really novel, original and unique way of doing things. Strange sound collages crash against surreal imagery on subjects as diverse as UFOs, Mose Allison, incest and biblical references, and the albums are peppered by lyrics in Spanish as well as in English. These lyrics are often ‘spacey’ or violent, yet it is clear that their author is eloquent and articulate. Their use of volume and dynamics is also of note, with quiet, lazy, restrained sections contrasting with loud hell-for-leather, beat-the-crap-out-of-your-guitar choruses, and guttural growlings interspersed with sweet, almost falsetto, tunefulness. They were of particular influence on the grunge music scene of the early 1990s (Nirvana claimed, in interview, to have been trying to emulate their sound with Smells Like Teen Spirit), and have been cited by many, including David Bowie, U2 and Radiohead, as one of their favourite bands.
Black Francis, now rechristened Frank Black, has since been prolific, both solo and with his band Frank Black And The Catholics.
And so, before we move on, here are a couple of interesting tidbits for you…
The song Debaser (from the album Doolittle – which was provisionally titled Whore) was inspired by the film Un Chien Andalou, by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali…anyone that has seen this film will remember the eyeball-slicing scene vividly! The song Ana (from Bossanova) is an acrostic – the first letters of each of its six lines spelling out S-U-R-F-E-R.
Divinyl’s tip for best introductory album = Doolittle.
Throwing Muses were formed in 1983 by Kristin Hersh and her step-sister Tanya Donelly. They self-released a set of demos (The Doghouse Cassette) in 1984, also releasing a self-titled EP later that year. Their debut album proper (again eponymous) was released in 1986. Muses were the first American act to be signed to British record label 4AD, which has housed all of these key bands, as well as lots of other great artists. 4AD is also responsible for one of my favourite compilation albums, which came free with the magazine Uncut in 1998 and features Lush, His Name Is Alive, Dead Can Dance, Lisa Germano, Mojave 3, Red House Painters and others. (Check out their website for a fuller overview of their artists/releases.)
Hersh has an extremely distinctive vocal style and the lyrics are quirky, sung over tempo shifts and catchy guitar hooks. This is still somewhat anguished ‘alternative rock’ (e.g. lots of references to mental illness in their lyrics – Hersh suffers from bipolar disorder and is compelled to write by auditory hallucinations which ‘force’ songs upon her), but it is tuneful, poppy and accessible. Hersh continues to record solo today – a more acoustic sound and stunning songwriting – and also, in 2003, formed the power rock trio 50 Foot Wave. She has been kind enough to share free-to-download mp3s from her solo career, as well as songs from Throwing Muses and 50 Foot Wave at her website Throwing Music.
Divinyl’s tip for best introductory album = Limbo.
Best introductory Kristin Hersh album = Hips And Makers (which was co-produced by Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye).
Kim Deal of The Pixies formed The Breeders (taking the name from the teenage band of she and twin sister Kelley, also in this incarnation – the word being one which homosexuals use to refer to heterosexual people) with Throwing Muses’ (with whom they had been on tour) guitarist Tanya Donelly and bassist Josephine Wiggs of Perfect Disaster. Formed in 1989 and releasing their first full album, Pod, in 1990, this was a much more girl-based sound, where angular guitar-playing and feedback are complemented by the melodic singing voices of both Deal and Donelly (don’t get me wrong, these women can howl too!). They were signed to 4AD after Ivo Watts-Russell heard their demo, and their debut was recorded (again by Steve Albini, with whom Deal had worked when she was in The Pixies) in only one week. And so to a fact, before we leave The Breeders – with their album Title TK (2002), they heralded the “all wave” philosophy of recording analogue instruments and vocals and eschewing computer technology and digital recording techniques.
Divinyl’s tip for best introductory album = Last Splash.
Whilst The Breeders are still going (or at least haven’t officially split – the last album they released was Title TK), Tanya Donelly (the most ‘capped’ in this pantheon) left in 1991 to form…
Belly. Who were a much more chart- and MTV-friendly band who fit nicely into the division of early 90s indie rock that also included groups such as Lush, Echobelly and Dubstar. Belly are, in my opinion, under-appreciated. Their first EP, Slow Dust, was released in 1992 and reached number one on the British indie chart. There followed two albums – Star in 1993 and King in 1995. And that was it (but it was enough to garner Grammy nominations)…unless you count a (great) album mixing ‘best of’/B-sides and rareties not released until 2002. Their sound was much more ‘pop’ than their sibling bands, at times dreamy, at times thrashy, the lyrics still replete with weird, haunting and surreal imagery. They had their biggest success with the single Feed The Tree.
Donelly continues to work as a solo artist and has made some lovely songs; however, in my opinion, her solo efforts have varied widely in quality – it’s all a bit hit-and-miss. You can visit her website, where there are free downloadable demos from Belly’s album Star and also from her solo catalogue.
Divinyl’s tip for best introductory album – Star. And by Tanya Donelly as a solo artist – Whiskey Tango Ghosts.
N.B. All still images original by Divinyl.