Kristin Hersh – Learn To Sing Like A Star

Kristin Hersh
Learn To Sing Like A Star

In a cherished interview with this writer in mid-2004, Kristin Hersh enigmatically explained the reason for the latter-day polarization of her musical settings. “When I can be very quiet and very loud, I am my most comfortable, my most balanced,” she confessed, pointedly adding, “I enjoy extremes.” Thus, in the early-to-middle years of this current decade, Hersh’s songs have been divvied-up into two distinct aural camps; subversively gentile folk for her solo recordings (2001’s Sunny Border Blue and 2003’s The Grotto) and savage angry amplification for her band-related output (for 2003’s eponymous Throwing Muses reunion record and for 2 EPs/1 LP heading-up 50 Foot Wave). Whilst this uncompromised radicalism has channelled Hersh’s twin impulses into potent separately-categorised concoctions, it’s perhaps driven her to shed a little too much of the diversity that coloured-in the classic back catalogue entries of her full-time Throwing Muses years and her early-solo career. In the process, Hersh has been depriving all but very devoted fans of her self-described “full spectrum picture.” Until the unveiling of this, Hersh’s seventh solo studio set, the euphorically/sarcastically named Learn To Sing Like A Star.

From the luscious expansive packaging inwards, it seems Hersh has grown a little weary of shoving her work into tidy pigeon-holes, preferring instead to pile everything into the melting-pot to cover the full-range of her bubbling songwriting essence. Some of this stylistic re-shifting was undoubtedly enabled with the input of two old collaborators (cellist Martin McCarrick and Throwing Muses drummer Dave Narcizo) and one new one (violinist Kimberlee McCarrick, wife of Martin). But although these honourable guests have helped remember Hersh’s past dalliances with eclecticism – notably the underrated 1996 Throwing Muses long-player Limbo – there are some fresher juxtapositions at play, that could only have come from Hersh’s own sense of (re)invention. Crucially, Learn To Sing Like A Star sees the adoption of some rich, raw and earthy production values, which satisfyingly blur together layers of baroque and rock instrumentation into tough but flexible song arrangements. It’s almost as if Hersh has consciously listened again to her early inspirations (X, The Violent Femmes, The Meat Puppets), reclaimed something shaped by her own influence (PJ Harvey’s Dry debut springs high in the mind) and absorbed a few tricks from recent fellow-travellers (specifically Howe Gelb and Andrew Bird, who played on The Grotto) to give her songs room to roam across raucous and elegiac environs.

The opening “In Shock” simply had to be the calling-card for Learn To Sing Like A Star, as the preceding single. With its mesh of pounding piano chords, fuzzy-bass, dueling electric and acoustic guitars, swirling strings and stomping drums, “In Shock” is one of the most melodically-soaring Kristin Hersh songs has put out in eons. It’s a blend of elements that’s repeated and recalibrated at scattered points throughout the collection; most effectively on the quiet/loud churning of “Day Glo” and the percussively-charged “Winter.” Elsewhere, there are a smattering of moments for listeners more familiar with the willowy solo balladry of Hips & Makers or The Grotto; with the lovely warming “Ice” and the elegant “Nerve Endings” being the most alluring examples. Being accommodating to the record’s moves into multiplicity, Hersh also slips in a trio of instrumentals to both extend her grasp of different genres and to reduce gear-changing jerks between adjacent tracks. Hence we’re treated to an unadorned folk-blues guitar meditation with “Christian Hearse” (perhaps titled as an affectionate dig at lazy hacks who constantly spell her name wrong), the almost-jazz strains of “Piano 1” and the plaintive post-rock foray of “Piano 2.” Perhaps the most stunning break from rigid formula comes in the shape of “The Thin Man,” which closes proceedings in Yo La Tengo-flavoured dreaminess – built around a rubbery looping bass-line, offbeat percussion and slow-unfurling guitar haze. With this concluding pearl it’s just a joy to hear Hersh really pushing back own boundaries, whether it’s intentional or not. Hopefully, she’ll be making it more of a habit in future.

As with any Kristin Hersh long-player, Learn To Sing Like A Star will of course take a dozen or so spins to reveal its true merits to listeners. Whilst such a heavy investment may seem like a stiff proposition at first – especially in these MP3 shuffle-play days – it will pay back more dividends than most albums released in 2007 will ever manage.