Fusing old with new to make an improvement on new: when you can do that on your own terms, why would you ever want to sing like a star?
I wouldn't put it past a clueless record executive to advise 20-year recording veteran Kristin Hersh to "learn to sing like a star", but red heaven help them if they actually did, potentially inspiring the title of her seventh solo studio album, and her first since 2003's The Grotto. The equivalent of telling chef Bobby Flay to study the art of White Castle Chicken Rings, steering the gravel-voiced artist behind Throwing Muses, 50-Foot Wave, and a solo catalog that includes "Your Ghost", "Gazebo Tree", and "Your Dirty Answer" down the primrose path of Liz Phair and Jewel before her could only have ended badly. Assuming any truth in that perverse imagined scenario, Learn to Sing Like a Star is the sweetest revenge, further cementing Hersh's status as one of "alternative" rock's most valuable all-time players, a songwriter -- and yes, singer -- of enduring worth to popular music.
With her solo records spanning from the sparse, now-classic Hips and Makers, to a mail-order only release of Appalachian murder ballads and lullabies, to the woozy Howe Gelb- and Andrew Bird-abetted Grotto, one might expect her first release for the Americana-rich Yep Roc stable to continue in stride, but Learn to Sing Like a Star brings the rock of her two aforementioned bands, and how. "Getting up is what hurts," she roars on "Day Glow", putting the acoustic guitars to bed in favor of an electric's percussive throb, strings provided by the McCarricks, and Muses drummer David Narcizo. The song builds, dies down, then swirls up again in a tuneful fury. The opener, "In Shock", is similarly nervy, backed by rapid-fire piano thumping. "Bitten by a dream state / You are fearless / And your empty arms / Waiting for no one / You wanted to be wanted," Hersh drawls and rasps about attitude, image, crushes with eyeliner, perhaps.
The album as a whole seems similarly concerned with personality, and personality conflicts. "Sugar Baby" alternates jittery acoustic strumming with watery effects-laden electric wiggles as Hersh sings, "You're a sight / You look like someone dressed as you." "Your messing with my head makes a terrible noise," she sings on the jaunty "Wild Vanilla", before the wonderfully bizarre admission, "You make the gypsy in me horny for the flower garden." Such back-and-forth dysfunction recalls the thorny days of mid-'90s confessional rock, which was 90% tiresome, but Hersh's work comes off neither petty nor petulant. She is the wise, wild woman of the neighborhood, fucking shit up and then putting it in context. Learn to Sing Like a Star is punctuated by several shreds of song that break the flow of anxiety with somber solo guitar (the most excellently titled "Christian Hearse") and empty hall piano ("Piano 1"). Though wordless, these are the vestiges of the more reflective, off-kilter storytelling side of Hersh's catalog.
"Vertigo" is the album’s highlight, representing in four quick minutes the breadth of Hersh's various styles and talents. A bit of minstrel-folk guitar plucking weaves in and out, harking back to cuts like "Teeth" and "Heaven". The song is then drawn into edgy, staccato, beat-driven territory. Violins saw through the air like insect wings. The two sections eventually merge, with Narcizo's drums underlining both the glossy, baroque guitar figures and the suddenly mellifluous strings. It's the type of song that can only be written and arranged with considerable experience and exacting knowledge of one's strengths. Pulling together the dramatic and aggressive tendencies of literate post-punk with a deep love for folk tradition, "Vertigo" ranks amongst Hersh's best and most original work. Likewise, the closing "The Thin Man" is a beautiful slow-builder that incorporates chant-like backward piano and Peter Buck-style "soloing", taking traditional rock instruments and turning them inside-out, fusing old with new to make an improvement on new. When you can do that on your own terms, why would you ever want to sing like a star?