Kristen Hersh - In Shock Video
"In Shock" Video Review
When Kristin Hersh plays live, she plays alone, sitting onstage and cradling an acoustic guitar. She's also known to champion songwriterly types like Vic Chesnutt. So it's tempting to view the Throwing Muses and 50FootWave leader's solo career as an exercise in that same sort of stripped-down song-centric purism, but that wouldn't be quite accurate. Hersh's lyrics might be intensely personal, but they're also vague and elliptical; few of her words even resolve as images, let alone scenes or moments or confessions. Her melodies can sometimes be huge and overwhelming, but even then they're somehow broken or tentative; she flits in and out of choruses as it suits her, and rarely twists her songs to fit any classical structure.
Really, Hersh's songs are just as reliant on bells and whistles as those of TV on the Radio, Sonic Youth, or any other band that thoroughly integrates its effects-pedals into its writing process. It's just that Hersh's one big special effect is her voice, a singular instrument maybe best described as Betty Boop on methadone. In Hersh's voice, strength, fragility, desperation and resolve are all inextricably wrapped up in each other, like she somehow takes comfort in her own confusion. That voice drove both the Throwing Muses and 50FootWave, but on her solo records, it's allowed to take over completely, to overpower and swallow everything around it even as it sinks deeply into her arrangements.
Hersh's voice remains the engine at the heart of Learn to Sing Like a Star, her seventh solo album and first for Yep Roc, but something else is missing. Hersh's previous albums all came out on 4AD, and something of that label's tangled goth-pop aesthetic bled onto them. She might not have been singing about candles and lace, but the strings and acoustic guitars had a couple of extra layers of reverb on them, and they'd build as her voice got louder, giving some of her choruses a religious swoop that wouldn't have been out of place on a Dead Can Dance record. Those layered-up strings and pianos are still there on Learn to Sing, but they've been stripped of their woozy veneers, made to saw and clank without any of the pillowy sustain they once had.
Hersh produces the record herself, and she doesn't do her compositions any favors. At times, she plays around with processed, crunchy rock guitars or overdramatic power-ballad crescendos. It sounds like she's been listening to the Foo Fighters or something; I can't imagine what she was trying to do. Even more confusingly, she's included a couple of spare, almost minimal instrumentals, all too short to really add or detract anything from the album.
Still, her voice has that edgy intimacy it's always had, and sometimes the crashing strings even accentuate it and build it into something huge. We can still hear her fingers squeak on their guitar strings, and her lyrics often still have a strangely elusive evocativeness: "This place makes me feel like I'm dead, haunting it." And she's still as powerful a presence as she ever was. But in her über-clean, compressed production and arrangements, she's stacked the deck against herself and prevented too many of her songs from breathing and pulsing the way they should.
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