’tis a live set from Kristin Hersh, whom you might primarily know as Tanya Donelly’s stepsister. The earliest solo album Hersh released was also a recorded concert, in which she went through Throwing Muses material; from that very first display of naked awesomeness she made quite clear she’s don’t need no band to rock out. It’s not nonsensical to prefer raw, solo Hersh over bandmate-crowded Hersh; in fact, I believe most pseudo-unplugged lone guitar Hersh songs sound way better than their polished studio counterparts, including Muses stuff. My first encounter with bare Hersh was this epic live version of “Sundrops”:
Dazzling. That guitar is just a strummed stream of chords. And Kristin’s black hair beats her most extended blond hair any day. SUN DROPS DOWN! When I saw Hersh live, she had this song written on the setlist as possible encore, yet she did not consider it. The only song she played solo was a mediocre Muses cut about she and her sister in a lesbian bar. The rest was violin-abusive and “pretty”. You might notice in that video her head side tilting, or sideways head-moving, which is one of Hersh’s most cheered trademarks. It seemingly got worse over the years, as this 00s video shows:
It’s almost as she was undergoing demonic possession or was an electric-singin’ robot. Even if the “tilting” was anticipated in her early Muses days. Fuck headbanging, go head side-moving (for lack of a more consecrated indie term)! The point is, Hersh live is the cat’s pajamas. Close listeners will have noticed the progressive coarsening and drying of her voice over the years. This must be related to her more punkish waste of vocal cords in that other group of hers, 50 Foot Wave. She’s never had a pristine mermaid voice, but it’s evident her tone’s become a tad rougher (and she doesn’t strike me as a smoker). It’s all displayed in this here release, Catz ‘n’ ratz, in which, coincidentally, neither of the two songs I’ve illustrated can be found. This greasy voice is perfect for her version of “Banks of Ohio”, which opens the album, a murder ballad popularized by Johnny Cash; or in “Fortune”, which would not work as well if her guts sounded more clean. And that’s just the first two songs. When she does a Muses song she obviously goes for a more Muses-y vocal style though, which is quite interesting. Let’s do a breakdown of the cuts featured, by album.
House Tornado (Throwing Muses) 1
Red Heaven (Throwing Muses) 1
Hips and Makers 4
Murder, Misery and Then Goodnight 1
Sunny Border Blue 1
The Grotto 2
Learn to Sing Like a Star 2
*new stuff* 4
So you’ve got quieter songs (“Deep Wilson”), furious guitar-acing songs (“Spain”, though Hersh says it’s “whiny”) and folksy old yarns (“One Train”), as well as nice chit chat. It’s a pretty neat overview of Hersh’s facets. It just further demonstrates how she doesn’t need no studio ornamentation, tricky over-producing or puke-inducing violin bedizenment. “Winter” for instance sounds way more heartfelt here than its Learn To Sing Like a Star version. The setlist is intriguing to say the least; she chooses an obscure Muses song (“You Cage”) and a slightly known one (“Pearl”) instead of going the easy way (and playing whatever off the self-titled album); she relies on yet unreleased cuts and trad jaunts rather than classics (no “Gazebo Tree”, no “Sundrops”). Nevertheless she bases the whole album finale on “Hips and Makers”, which I guess it’s her most well-regarded album. Well, at least she ignores “Sky Motel”, which sucks. Many of the unreleased cuts can be found on her CASH music project online, which gathers acoustic demos of songs off her upcoming new album (which I’m not sure if it’s gonna be solo or Muses). Presented this bare, the new tunes inspire darkness. Spooky bliss. Though certainly this release isn’t precisely cheerful. Hersh seems on despair-ridden mode. Near the end there’s a comment of hers about Vic Chesnutt (who apparently considered “Your Ghost” to be a “girly” song), which adds to the somberness. Kristin also mentions Chesnutt being able to knock things out – I suppose this was recorded before his ultimate death. The album concludes with the bluesy “Tuesday Night”, which is a fitting closure.
Clocking at one hour twelve minutes this holds up pretty well, not being monotonous. Well, after a while it might sound a bit samey, but only because you’d wish to be there instead of blindly listening. Both longtime Hersh nuts and puzzled noobs will probably enjoy the set.
Link in comments.