A muse amused

Kristin Hersh discovers the bright side of life
By BRETT MILANO  |  February 27, 2007

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EYE ON YOU: Hersh has mastered the kind of torch song that celebrates the messy and obsessive sides of a grown-up relationship.

There are a few good reasons to admire Kristin Hersh’s latest solo album, Learn To Sing like a Star (Yep Roc). For one thing, it’s as alluringly tuneful a disc as she’s ever made, without skimping on the depth and dark corners that her fans have come to love. For another, it comes close to bringing together the acoustic sound of her solo albums with the more produced approach of Throwing Muses. But most of all, it manages to use both the words “guttural” and “subsequent” in its lyrics. In the annals of pop songwriting, that may be a first.

“Did I really do that?” she asks over tea at Newbury Street’s Trident Café, her eyes going up in surprise. “I should probably go back and learn the lyrics.” It’s clear her approach to songwriting and recording hasn’t gotten any less intuitive over the years. Around the time she started Throwing Muses as a teenager in Newport with half-sister Tanya Donelly, she experienced the songs as auditory hallucinations that came blasting fully written in her ears. She’s made peace with the intrusions over the years, figuring that the songs are more powerful than she is. But she still doesn’t give herself too much credit for where a song or an album will choose to go.

So it is with the new disc. The title comes from a spam e-mail that she kept receiving during the sessions. But it does raise the question of whether this long-time cult heroine is capable of doing such a thing. She isn’t even that comfortable about the relatively commercial sound of the disc she’s just made. “I was surprised at the largeness of it. It got a little too perfect for me, and I’m not sure if the people who like what I do will like it. I like things to be fluid, fragile, fucked up. This was light and clean, and played to a click track — I’m still not sure if it’s complex enough to last. I wouldn’t have chosen this production vocabulary to tell these stories, but the songs make their own decisions.”

Not to worry, however: though the new album is different, it isn’t that different. The melodies may be dressed up with layers of guitar and keyboard overdubs, but they’re still her melodies — the kind that dance around in mid air and don’t land where you’d expect. The opening “In Shock” — a rocker with cello, and the most Muses-like track here — brings out the bluesy drawl that’s been in her voice for a number of years, a reminder that she’s been messing with the blues about as long as PJ Harvey has. Likewise, the overall mood of the album — spooky, mysterious, and inviting — is the ambiance that’s lately made Joanna Newsom a hot property. Hersh may never have learned to sing like a star, but a number of stars have learned to sing like her.

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