REVIEW: Kristin Hersh, Learn to Sing Like a Star, Yep Roc

Posted May 10th, 2007 by eric

Kristin Hersh’s appeal has always been that she’s a little bit crazy in the best possible way, and listening to her records is like standing over her shoulder as she frantically writes in her diary. The emotions are bare and explicit and connect through her raw and piercing voice. But her voice has changed subtlely over the years. The manic vibrato of her younger days with Throwing Muses has calmed into a huskier, raspier cadence. She can still punch it up into that old range when she wants to, but her comfort zone these days seems to be the lull before storm, which makes her moments of mania all the more affecting.

Learn to Sing Like a Star is a completely tongue in cheek title. The cover art plays into the cheekiness with a sexual and artsy shot of Hersh, coyly hiding her eyes from the camera. The content of the record, of course, bears no resemblance to its self-help promotional cover. To say Hersh’s songs are personal is putting it ridiculously lightly. It’s as though her brain records every horrible moment of her life in slow motion so she can go back and feel it twice as badly in song. What may be therapeutic for her is equally cathartic for the listener. It’s easy to be lulled into her fixations. She’s a clever story-teller. Her lyrics can some times seem obtuse, but once you adjust to the way her mind works, they flow sensibly, artfully.

Hersh’s solo records have always been calmer beasts than her more aggressive work with Throwing Muses, and, more recently, 50 Foot Wave. Since 1994’s Hips and Makers, the sparseness of her solo work has played well into her idiosyncratic vocal tics and her darkly worded poetry. She’s always saved her most intrinsically personal material for her solo records. She’s a prolific writer. In addition to fronting two rock bands, she’s released six solo albums, all of which mine her personal demons in a predominantly acoustic setting. String embellishments have long accompanied her compositions, but on Learn to Sing Like a Star, the effect is almost as aggressive as a Throwing Muses record with an urgency and surge that belies the acoustic foundation.

Hersh’s tendency to become unhinged at unexpected moments is what’s kept me intrigued throughout all her incarnations. She accomplishes these states of emergency with both her voice and her guitar playing, which squirrels its way around jagged melodies, always finding and locking into the scariest progressions. On this record, Hersh is lamenting multiple tragedies, both personal and worldly, but her perspective is never asking for or even portraying a need for narcissistic sympathy. She merely walks you through the damage, metaphorically and literally, and you can practically feel her anguish. She doesn’t need your empathy or sympathy; that’s what the songs are for.

It’s a shame the opener “In Shock” wasn’t more of a hit. I know Kristin Hersh isn’t exactly in the hit-making business, but that song has an inherently catchy explosiveness that would probably convert a lot of new fans to her brand of manic folk. Hersh has always sustained an underdog status, even when Throwing Muses were a viable college radio darling. Unfortunately, Learn to Sing Like a Star isn’t going to burst through the commercial wall; to a casual listener it sounds not unlike several other of Hersh’s solo outings, but, when you parse the details, she’s never been in finer form.

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