Since she began Throwing Muses in the ’80s, Kristin Hersh has made intense, volatile music that is uncanny in its ability to convey emotions most convincingly experienced undistilled, swinging with eerily appropriate recklessness between fury, desperation, confusion, elation, determination, and futile lethargy. At times, her song structures are repetitive, sullenly stubborn; at other times they’re unpredictable to the point of seeming impromptu. It’s not music you listen to casually, and you’re not likely to hear it in a VW commercial or as montage music in a Real World episode. It doesn’t set a mood; in fact, it wreaks havoc on the notion that any mood could ever be stabilized or controlled. And while her albums have been generally well-received, it would be a mistake to call her work influential: it’s far too idiosyncratic and impassioned to furnish a blueprint for anyone else.
Despite a legion of fervently devoted fans, Hersh has had little commercial success to show for it. Hence, her new band, 50 Foot Wave, which is as much a marketing and distribution strategy as it is any kind of musical departure. The premise behind the band (whose name seems strangely inappropriate — they’re not surf-rock revivalists) is to self-release EPs every nine months or so rather than put out full-length albums on a major label’s timetable, generally every two years. It seems laudable to try to subvert the industry’s intentions to squeeze every ounce of profit potential from each of its releases, but there’s something less than satisfactory about an EP, a misfit format which suffers from the same problem as the novella — they usually feel either too long or too short. (Throwing Muses’ 1988 EP The Fat Skier is an exception, however; it’s arguably the best thing they ever did.) Still, to stay in a kind of constant dialogue with audiences via frequent releases is an inspired idea, one in line with their having reportedly held open rehearsals where fans could watch them practice and provide feedback on works in progress. It’s refreshing to see a band proudly announce a dialectic relationship with its fans and admit that their expectations help shape the art it makes. It’s especially canny coming from Hersh, who is at times unfairly characterized as creating self-involved psychodramatic songs in some sort of a solipsistic vacuum. It’s as though she is purposely trying to rid herself of that “mad genius” tag she’s sometimes saddled with by crediting the supportive community she’s earned for some of her work’s power.
Regarding this EP, much could be made of Hersh’s hard-rock electric guitar playing, abetted by buzzsaw distortion and some stoner-metal wah-wah, and the far more straightforward rock drumming — almost Neal Peart-like in its busy flashiness, making David Narcizo’s ingeniously intricate work with Throwing Muses seem understated — provided courtesy of Rob Ahlers. It is certainly a departure from the staid, mostly acoustic albums Hersh has made recently as a solo artist. In its confrontational sound, its relentless pacing, and its dark lyrical outlook, 50 Foot Wave sometimes seems an update of Hüsker Dü’s 1983 Metal Circus EP. But if this to be considered a departure, then the main difference between this and the heavier songs on Throwing Muses records would lie in the apparent eagerness to sound conventional — the vocal trills and affectations that used to mark Hersh’s delivery have been replaced by more run-of-the-mill guttural shouting, and her windy, dizzying guitar runs have morphed into the more predictable kind of soloing that wouldn’t be out of place in a Foo Fighters song. Indeed, the heavy riffing on “Glory Weed” and the outro of “Long Painting” suggest she’s been listening to a lot of Queens of the Stone Age or something. While, initially, these songs are bracing, almost startling in their muscularity, after several listens it begins to sound a bit blustery. The loudness disguises whatever emotional core there is to these songs. Only on the final track, “Dog Days”, does the intensity feel earned, with Hersh bellowing, “Don’t touch me, I don’t know where you’ve been”, while Ahlers bashes away one machine-gun roll after another.
Frequent touring is promised as part of the package with this new band, and one can easily imagine these songs playing well in a live setting, with Hersh’s spooky stage presence countervailing the sonic maelstrom, revealing the compelling paradox at the heart of all would-be cathartic music, which must try to convey spontaneous release with an exacting precision night in and night out. At the club, then, might be the best place to hear these songs first, so that this recording can become a souvenir of the incarnate power those shows must possess. Otherwise, without that experience as a base, the songs seem to strenuously point to something that remains inscrutable, like being transported into someone else’s fever dream. You’re aware of its urgency, but its foreignness leaves you more stumped than shaken.