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Kristin Hersh

+ {50 Foot Wave}

Known primarily for being the chief singer-songwriter/guitarist with “arty” American indie stars, THROWING MUSES, emotive chanteuse KRISTIN HERSH (born Martha Kristin Hersh, August 7, 1966, Atlanta, Georgia), was also behind several evocative solo studio albums, as well as leading out post-‘Muses punk-metal outfit, 50 FOOT WAVE. From the early 80s to a comeback set in 2003, THROWING MUSES seemed always to be on the verge of finally breaking into the US mainstream, but the shadow of her former stepsister TANYA DONELLY (who’d bolted from THROWING MUSES, and indeed, a rudimentary BREEDERS, to find fame and fortune as leader of BELLY) loomed large at the back of her mind. But it was always healthy rivalry that spurred on Kristin, a highly intelligent artist battling with bipolar disorder and inner vulnerability, a vulnerability she worked through by releasing her inner demons through song; her memoirs were published in 2010, entitled Rat Girl.
Discovering she’d penned tracks align with a more acoustic ambience, HERSH opted to give the songs a spin as a solo artist. Together with former TINY LIGHTS cellist and much in-demand sessioner, Jane Scarpantoni, HIPS AND MAKERS (1994) {*8}, was indeed in stark contrast to her work with the ‘Muses. Co-produced by Kristin and Lenny Kaye (formerly of the PATTI SMITH GROUP), and featuring a guest appearance from R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe on intimate opener, `Your Ghost’, the UK Top 10 album found HERSH probing her troubled psyche through a skewed, childlike lens. Its distorted, sparse acoustic backing making for compelling listening. Folky in the sense that it contained a warped take of trad cut, `The Cuckoo’, the almost brittle and waifish Kristin took an introspective and confessional approach on the haunting `Beestung’, `A Loon’, `Me And My Charms’ and the despairing `The Letter’.
Switching labels from Sire to Rykodisc Records in the States (although little was affected in her UK affiliation with indie giants, 4 a.d.), and on the back of a couple of swansong ‘Muses sets, “University” and “Limbo”, her second solo set, STRANGE ANGELS (1998) {*6}, was not so inspiring. Probably reaching out for accessibility, a poor showing chart-wise was her reward. Drawing from her folk-blues influences, melancholy and wistful didn’t work this time around as co-producer JOE HENRY couldn’t quite the extract the best out of intriguing highlights such as `Like You’, `Aching For You’ and `Gazebo Tree’.
Not thought worthy of an official release by her label bosses, loyal fans of Kristin and Appalachian folk were delighted by her full-blown attempt at the genre through the mail-order-only set, MURDER, MISERY AND THEN GOODNIGHT (1998) {*6}. A round-up of the likes of `Pretty Polly’, `Down In The Willow Garden’ and `Banks Of The Ohio’ (to name only three from a dozen dirges), HERSH strayed a little from her alt-rock vocation.
Picking up where “Strange Angels” left off, SKY MOTEL (1999) {*7}, was once again a truly “solo” affair, albeit with sparse accompaniment from former THROWING MUSES sticksman/programmer, David Narcizo. Now able to combine both aspects of her solo and band-like material, restraint and reflection were hardly words ready-made for the sweetly abrasive, `Fog’, `A Cleaner Light’ and `Clay Feet’.
Husky HERSH’s fourth set proper, SUNNY BORDER BLUE (2001) {*7}, again concentrated on the folkier side of her muse, the veteran singer-songwriter further handling all the instrumental and arrangement duties. While this lent the album a singular grace and a feeling of continuity, there was little of the sonic juxtaposition so effectively employed by her ‘Muses; highlights included a cover of CAT STEVENS’ `Trouble’, the wonderfully fractured `Ruby’, and the tense `37 Hours’.
2003’s THE GROTTO {*6} found HERSH as abstrusely compelling as ever, certainly lyrically and partly musically as well, her luminous, literate vignettes only fully revealing their secrets with repeated listening. The lady’s oblique charms were amplified this time around by the presence of semi-legendary desert-rock guru HOWE GELB (on piano) and ANDREW BIRD (on violin); check out `Deep Wilson’, `Snake Oil’ and `Silver Sun’.
With THROWING MUSES out of the picture for good, and Kristin now free to explore every musical avenue at her disposal, she shocked everyone in the business when she formed the fast ’n ’furious punk act, 50 FOOT WAVE, along with drummer Rob Ahlers and ex-latter-day ‘Muses bassist, Bernard Georges. As close to golden-era grunge but a decade and a half on! (HOLE, anyone?), the screaming Kristin and her boys blasted out her teen-like spirit on `Long Painting’, the opener on 2005’s debut set, GOLDEN OCEAN {*7}; `Pneuma’, `Clara Bow’ and `Petal’, showed that at nearly 40, Kristin was ready to let her hair down. Sadly, although there were unfulfilled promises to release material on the net every month (EP’s would arrive every so often), the tsunami that was in her “new wave” alter-ego became almost secondary to her solo workouts.
Produced for Yep Rock in America, LEARN TO SING LIKE A STAR (2007) {*7} was a nice attempt at getting HERSH’s solo career back on track. Augmented by cellist Martin McCarrick (ex-SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES) and his wife Kimberlee on violin, plus stalwart sticksman Narcizo, tracks that emerged from Kristin’s ragged emotion were `In Shock’, `Day Glo’, `Under The Gun’ and `Peggy Lee’.
Although not as big a name in the business as she once was, two sets were released almost simultaneously in June 2010: the live career-spanning work-out CATS AND MICE {*6} – recorded with a few traditional cuts the previous February – and a fresh studio outing via her website, CROOKED {*6}.
Over the years Kristin has delivered some mighty cover versions, including `When The Levee Breaks’ (LED ZEPPELIN), `Panic Pure’ (VIC CHESNUTT), `Jesus Christ’ (ALEX CHILTON), `Can The Circle Be Unbroken’ (A.P. CARTER), `Pennyroyal Tea’ (NIRVANA), `Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey’ (The BEATLES) and `Wave Of Mutilation’ (PIXIES).
Turning 50 and deciding to return to the fray in 2016, and in more ways than one, Kristin first released a fresh 50 FOOT WAVE extended play, `Bath White’ (the title of an exhilarating lead track from 6 cues), before launching her eBook, WYATT AT THE COYOTE PALACE {*7}, with added solo double-CD/artwork/lyrics. Yes, a different angle to the normal concept, but maybe next year she’d have a chance of winning the Nobel prize for literature, now that the judges have formulated some all-encompassing criteria. The album itself was inspired by her autistic son Wyatt and, as stated on her website “his fascination with an abandoned apartment building inhabited by coyotes”. Augmented by her long-time friend Dave Narcizo (whom she’d known since third-grade), she’d be unveiling most of the 24 tracks (including `Soma Gone Slapstick’, `Bright’ and `August’) on a promotional November tour of Ireland and the UK.
2018’s solo POSSIBLE DUST CLOUDS {*8} was not unlike her 50 Foot Wave music, though with that snarl and post-grunge pictorial, HERSH could be no more distinctive. Horrendously ignored in her own country, UK-based Fire Records gave her the freedom to crank up the amps and kick against the pricks on opener `LAX’, hazy-hiker `No Shade In Shadow’, the “Smells Like Teen…” `Gin’ and the swirling `Loud Mouth’; the calming acoustic finale `Lady Godiva’ bade farewell in her own sui generis rasp.
© MC Strong 1996-2004/GRD // rev-up MCS Sep2013-Oct2018

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