Kristin Hersh: The Grotto

Marshall Bowden

Kristin Hersh

The Grotto

Label: 4AD
US Release Date: 2003-03-04
UK Release Date: 2003-03-17

Lots of attention has been given to Kristin Hersh the person-leader of Throwing Muses, young mother, hallucinating bipolar teenage songwriter, alt-rock role model -- but not nearly enough ink has been spilled about Kristin the musician. The fact is, she has been able, over a period of some 18 years, to amass a striking body of recorded work that is fiercely individualistic. Neither her often hard-rocking work with the Muses or her usually acoustic solo recordings sound much like other alt-rock or solo-female-singer-with-guitar acts. That's on purpose. Hersh has never wanted to make music that can be apprehended so directly that it amounts to little more than a marketing effort on behalf of the artist. Her lyrics are extremely personal, calling to mind James Joyce's explanation that in order to understand Finnegan's Wake the reader would have to have been everywhere he had been and seen everything he had seen. On the other hand, like Joyce's phenomenal work, Hersh's songs allow an expansive view of the universe and allow one to identify with them, perhaps precisely because of their very detailed, intimate nature.

Then there is Kristin's composition and guitar work. Her songs rarely follow any conventional structure, twisting and moving with the emotions that inspired them. Though the lyrical content and volatility of many of her songs may be hard to understand on an intellectual level, they connect viscerally, hooking themselves into your nervous system like living organisms. It's on an emotional level that one first starts to connect with any Kristin Hersh project, with intellectual understanding arriving weeks or months later, like a flash of satori. Musically, her songs are built around chord voicings that are often somewhat dissonant, though Hersh hears them more as interesting tonal colors than as clashing sounds. On her acoustic work she utilizes alternate guitar tunings, which can completely alter the palette of chords available to her as a composer. "So much rock music is based on chord progressions we've all heard a million times," she has said. "'I've never had any interest in writing songs to chords I've heard a million times before. I honestly don't know how people do that."

The new, eponymous Throwing Muses album (the first in seven years) is being released at the same time as Kristin's acoustic outing, The Grotto. "They're related," Kristin says. "They were recorded during the same year, and they came from the same time and place." That place is Rhode Island, where Hersh and family lived for six months following a family death. The title refers to the Providence neighborhood where she lived while writing the album. The Grotto is a deeply meditative, ambient recording that manages to seem more spare than 1999's Strange Angels, harking all the way back to Hips and Makers, recorded before Hersh laid Throwing Muses to rest (temporarily, as it turns out). Kristin has always used rhythmic complexity as part of her arsenal, playing around the beat and allowing time signatures to change fluidly around her playing, and she still does that on songs like "Vanishing Town", but on many others ("Sno Cat", "Deep Wilson") she merely provides a sketched out setting for her lyrics and hoarse voice. That voice is an amazing instrument, conveying vulnerability, joy, world-weariness, worry, humor, and an incredible awe and amazement at almost everything in this world.

Hersh is a family woman, a mother who sees her life as completely normal and somewhat uninteresting in many respects. It genuinely seems to surprise her that anyone is interested in her CD's or comes to her shows. What Hersh considers normal is the often-chaotic nature of her life as a musician and mother of four. For example, she describes the song "Amica Montana" as being "about being banged around in the tour bus. When we're on the road (husband) Billy drives, I do the cooking, feed the pets and homeschool the kids. We're like the Partridge Family, only more so." The songs that many see as full of angst and dread are really paeans to a life that is actually very full and has many happy and transcendent moments. A full, happy life is not neat; it doesn't fit into easy containers. It is messy and complicated, but ultimately sweet, not unlike a melting chocolate ice cream cone on a hot day. The beauty and the energy of it is there in the lyrics, in the energy of Hersh's guitar strumming, and in the gorgeous violin work of Andrew Bird and the honky tonk piano chords of Howe Gelb. It makes me wish I were there, on that bus, on that road.

Similarly, the album's opener, "Sno Cat", comes from a moment of transcendence experienced after conflict. "Billy and I had a fight, I couldn't sleep, so I started driving around, and saw a Snocat, a snowmobile, and this fat guy was driving it . . . it was a Zen moment, and I couldn't be mad anymore." The song opens with a guitar motif that incorporates a rather arresting bent note that is more reminiscent of the blues than anything Hersh has ever done. Then the lyrics -- "A man made of butterfat / Careening around on a Snocat". Anyone who has ever arisen in the middle of the night and walked or driven around and been struck by the peacefulness and eerie beauty of the nocturnal world will understand this song immediately. It takes you to that moment.

If someone were to ask me whether The Grotto is a good introduction to Hersh's work, my reply would be that it is as good a place as any to get acquainted with her. Though one can construct a narrative of her work that creates a plausible course of artistic development and linearity, the fact is that Hersh's work has a dual nature: it changes depending on what she is experiencing at the time she writes the songs on any given album, but it also comes from an immutable inner core that was there before she played a note and will still be there when the last guitar chord fades away. That's why her work matters, why it conveys a sense of reality and integrity that cannot be created by any publicity department on Earth. It's why I'll never get over Kristin Hersh, and why you shouldn't, either.


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