Can there be a moment, please, to consider Kristin Hersh? On the music scene for 23 years now, and frequently given the most perfunctory of reviews and features by the press (even those who claim to acknowledge those on the fringe), Ms. Hersh is a mainstay who, thankfully, has refused to go away. A few years back, she had to claim temporary hiatus due to lack of money, but she rose again, and we should be very grateful for that.
What she has brought us, the music lovers, is another reason to get up in the morning. Her latest project, 50 Foot Wave’s Golden Ocean, is a tremendous and immense record. It solidifies rock ‘n’ roll, specifically punk rock, as an important force in the music world. Golden Ocean makes punk rock vital. It brings it beyond the thrill of the three-chord art and pulls it to broad dynamics, personal and therefore more truly thought-provoking lyrics, and musicianship that must rival any ensemble of any sort in existence today. To look at it one way, Golden Ocean is easily the equivalent of Husker Du’s Zen Arcade or the more recent Mission of Burma’s onOFFon. It’s that good. It contains all of the ferocity, musical divergences, and the bonus of a thinking adult’s lyrics. To look at it in a more ethereal manner, imagine Kurt Cobain never killed himself. It’s been more than a decade since In Utero and Nirvana has put out a few great records since then. They continue to update their distinct loves—melody, punk rock, old folk and blues—to create some masterpieces. Now, in 2005, Kurt has decided to go back to his roots, propelled by the continued vibrancy of bands like Fugazi and Sleater-Kinney. Golden Ocean may very well be the record Cobain & Co. would have put out, complete with early mid-life crisis questions and raging vocals to prove that getting older does not necessarily mean mentally settling down.
Again, that’s how good this is.
What 50 Foot Wave and Kristin Hersh have in common with the all of the above bands is sincerity. There is a realness that is absolutely absorbing. Ms. Hersh has never needed a stage persona to help her achieve a compelling image. She is compelling because of who she is. Like artists as disparate as Carla Bozulich to Jay Farrar to Michael Stipe, the sense of grand achievement comes always from within, not from without. There is not a show, other than the one bursting from the inside. Kristin Hersh will not sit still, not merely reinventing (like Madonna), but simply showing her every side, from a skewed pop songstress to a folk rock aficionado to a punk rock woman replete with a large family she is intent on keeping as important as her work. One can’t fake the emotion inherent on this record. 50 Foot Wave lets it all leak out—lyrics, vocals, and the amazing musical triumvirate of Bernard Georges (bass), Rob Ahlers (drums), and the consistently underrated guitar work of Kristin Hersh herself.
To single any song out would be to downplay the whole of the record. As soon as it starts, the listener knows she must listen until the end. It would be like trying to listen to just a few tracks off of Joni Mitchell’s Blue or Built to Spill’s Perfect From Now On. That would simply be a disservice. 50 Foot Wave takes cues from everyone you would want them to - the above-mentioned Husker Du and Mission of Burma, Gang of Four, Raincoats, Nirvana, Pere Ubu. The band is even self-referential to Throwing Muses. It’s a thrilling mix, and one that never sounds dated.
Golden Ocean does not move the whole game forward, which is the only reason why it does not get a ‘10’ rating in this review. It does give meaning to rock ‘n’ roll, though, in an exciting way. Rarely do records come around that are such a great mix of a physical adrenaline rush combined with intellectualism. There will certainly be plenty of interesting records to come out this year, but if you were true to yourself, you would recognize early on that this deserves to be on your top 10 already. It’s one of the reasons why you listen, after all: to find the sincerity behind all the games.