I had the honor of seeing Throwing Muses open up for New Order in 1989. One of the best opening acts I have ever seen, The Muses held their own in front of a crowd that was waiting for the electro-new wave sounds of New Order. Hersh rocked, soothed and mesmerized the crowd with her songs and her band, which, at the time, included the very tripped out Tanya Donnelly (who couldn’t stop staring at me, and this impressionable seventeen year old thought that Tanya was given him the sexy ojo—my buddy burst my ego when he told me that she was tripping on acid. If only…)
What I remember most about that night besides Tanya looking my way was the way that Hersh commanded the stage in her bright purple dress. She had this confidence, this alluring sensuality, this power when she sang. It was as if she demanded your attention and everyone gave it to her, deservedly so. She won over the crowd singing lyrics like “So you freeze/ I make frozen into heat/What can I tell you/ That you’ll believe” from “Tar Kissers.”
Eighteen years later, I realize as my WMA player randomly played Kristin Hersh on shuffle, that she’s like a post-modern Patti Smith (It’s no wonder that Smith’s guitarist Lenny Kaye produced her first album Hips and Makers). Just listen to Kristin’s eloquently powerful voice. It’s all in her phrasing, in her cigarette stained vocals and poetic layers of perpetual beauty and sadness on Learn to Sing like a Star that I feel bring her into the same league of punk chanteuse as Smith.
Learn to Sing like a Star is the ultimate Kirstin Hersh recording—she sounds fearless, confident and free. I feel like it’s the album that she’s been aching to make her whole career. Just listen to the lyrics from “The Thin Man”: “Fireworks for you in the ozone snow/ we’re just a little lonely/ did you break the promise half asleep/ did you make a promise you couldn’t keep?” Her words are like colors lifting pictures into masterful strokes of rhymes and allusions that stick to you, leave you lingering there listening, wanting to hear more. She has a certain mystery about her, in that you never know exactly what she’s singing about. And that’s precisely what I love about her. Her songs are like universal lyrical puzzles that allow you reflect and connect your own experiences with her dream-like lyrics.
My favorite line from Learn to Sing Like a Star comes from the opening track “In Shock”: “when the music’s loud, the mouth you are seeking finds your mouth, we are wanted.” After a few spins, I felt like Hersh was singing for me in continuous harmony. I promise you, from the opening riffs of “In Shock” you will be hooked. I love the blending of the strings with the guitars; it’s like an electric lullaby. “Nerve Endings” begins with a haunting acoustic solo guitar and the song sounds like musical ode to a Paulo Coelho character, Veronikka (from his book Veronikka Decides to Die.) When Hersh sings, “put a rock into my brain/I feel almost everything,” I hear this song as a moonlit serenade to lost soul stirring inside their very own personal asylum.
“Winter” has an addictive backbeat, somewhat reminiscent of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Breaking the Girl,” which shows that Hersh can rock with the best of them. Once again, the blending of strings with guitars and pounding drums as Kirstin asks the immortal question, “How do you talk again? I forgot/ like sand in naked flame.” I also dig the way that Hersh throws in three instrumental pieces throughout Star. They make ideal transitions between the songs. I’m not ordinary a fan of songs without vocals, but “Christian Hearse,” “Piano 1” and “Piano 2” are beautiful pieces that showcase Hersh’s eclectic artistry.
Stars climaxes with “The Thin Man.” Hersh sounds her most aching and decadent with distorted guitars in the background as she sings “We’re just a little starving/ two feet away and can’t reach.” It’s not just the words; it’s the music that unifies Hersh’s into an artistic statement of power, dedication and lyrical honesty as she finds her voice in an album that is already one of the most memorable of 2007. Learn to Sing Like a Star is not an album for the iPod generation; it requires a listen from start to finish without interruption. It’s an album that asks you to dive in deep and discover the mystical muse inside of it. Take a breath as you take it all in. You will love the taste of the stars you feel from within.
Throwing Muses – University
PJ Harvey – To Bring You My Love
Cat Power – You Are Free
Video: “In Shock”