In Kristin Hersh's mid-'80s to early-'90s work as the primary singer, songwriter, and guitarist of Throwing Muses, she and the band evolved from one-of-a-kind, trilling martial harangues–the accompaniment to near-tuneless recitations from Hersh's diary–to a smoother, hookier, and no less expressive sound. The process culminated in 1991's marvelous The Real Ramona, which had Throwing Muses stringing together fetching fragments of hummable pop with confidence and color. Then Hersh's half-sister Tanya Donelly left to form the even more radio-friendly Belly, and Throwing Muses entered a dark decade, releasing the occasional strident album between Hersh's introspective, space-folk solo records. In 2003, Hersh is inviting comparison of her two creative outlets by simultaneously releasing her album The Grotto and a new, eponymous Throwing Muses disc. On the band front, the news is slightly encouraging. Donelly returns to sing backup on a handful of Throwing Muses' tracks, and though her former bandmates are still hewing closer to the pounding, single-minded approach of their early days than to the sweet sting of Ramona, the new disc features moments where the old methods almost sound fresh again. Lengthier songs like "Pandora's Box," "Speed And Sleep," "Half Blast," and "Flying" go on long enough to develop complex shapes. The band pauses its relentless chugging for slower, hypnotic moments of echo and texture, often aided by Donelly's sweet vocals, which effectively shadow Hersh's high warble. As a whole, Throwing Muses still contains too much formless slop, but at least it's energetic. The Grotto isn't as successful. Guest players Howe Gelb and Andrew Bird add appealingly atmospheric orchestration to the record, and a few tracks (like the forlorn, sketchy "Deep Wilson" and the clattering "Arnica Montana") achieve the richly moody effect that Hersh seems to crave. But she's no better at writing memorable melodies for herself than for Throwing Muses, and it doesn't take long for her aimless acoustic picking and postgraduate lyrical poetry to dissipate into a dull gray haze. The Grotto isn't unpleasant, but given Hersh's prior track record for writing and recording essential material, there's no reason why she should be dabbling in the kind of mellow drone that clutters up college coffeehouses. The problem may be that Hersh compulsively separates her spare solo work from the rockier Throwing Muses material, instead of imaginatively merging those two sides. The result is creative stagnancy.