Tag Archives: Kristin Hersh

Your Ghost – Kristin Hersh and Nashville tuning

To hear examples of Nashville tuning used outside a country context, have a listen to Hips and Makers and Strange Angels, the first two solo albums by Throwing Muses/50 Foot Wave singer-guitarist Kristin Hersh. Examples of Nashville-tuning parts are numerous on Strange Angels; you’ll have to hunt harder for them on Hips and Makers but they’re there (on Velvet Days and Teeth, at least, I think).

Reacquainting myself with Hips and Makers yesterday and today, I could kick myself for being so cloth-eared. Nashville tuning is as prevalent on that album as it is on Strange Angels.

I started listening to the album’s opening track, Your Ghost – a duet with Michael Stipe that is one of the best things Hersh has ever done – because I’m mixing a song with an arrangement of acoustic guitar, cello and two voices, and wanted to hear how they balanced Jane Scarpantoni’s cello against the vocals. I was surprised, then, to find that I’d never noticed previously that there is a second guitar on the track, mixed off to the right-hand side. It’s a Nashville-tuned strummed part that exactly duplicates the main rhythm track. On each chord change, Hersh plays two single notes (root, fifth, I assume) then strums the chord – the single notes of the Nashville-tuned part tend to get drowned out by the standard-tuned guitar, but I think she’s doubling the whole performance, not just the strummed chords.

It’s a nice detail, one for headphone listening, and creates a rich, enveloping acoustic guitar sound. I’m not sure if it was Hersh’s idea, or Lenny Kaye’s (Kaye was the producer), but according to Steve Rizzo, who was assistant engineer on Hips and Makers and is Hersh’s co-producer/engineer today, it’s something she still does:

“We’ve been using that on almost every solo record. A lot of people think she’s playing a 12-string, but what’s happening is it’s the 6-string and the Nashville [a Gibson J-45] played together. She can play the exact same thing from take to take so they sound like a 12-string, which is pretty cool. And sometimes it sounds very physical. Her hands can be so strong that it’s like, ‘How the hell is she playing that?’”

The key to it is the element Rizzo identifies: Hersh’s doubling of the parts is so tight that it does sound like a 12-string. When the two takes are panned down the middle, it’s impossible to tell that’s it’s two performances, not a single 12-string. But panning one of the parts off to the side, as on Your Ghost, creates a really cool effect that’s worth the effort it must take to create it.

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Kristin Hersh – Nashville-tuned Gibson J-45 not pictured

Miss America – Mary Margaret O’Hara

Mary Margaret O’Hara’s debut album, Miss America, is a one-off in a literal sense.

Released in 1988 by Virgin, four years after the bulk of the recording had been completed, Miss America remains O’Hara’s only studio album proper. Eleven songs and 44 minutes long, it basically carries the entire O’Hara cult (mythos, even) on its back. Fortunately, it’s strong enough the bear the weight.

O’Hara’s sound remains singular. It doesn’t sound like 1983 or ’84, when it was recorded, or 1988, when it was released, or any time at all, really. She and her band went down avenues that had thitherto been unexplored by any musician, and no one has since followed her down, for all that she’s been cited as an inspiration by musicians including Kristin Hersh, Tanya Donelly, Perfume Genius, Jeff Buckley, Michael Stipe and that despicable bigoted old fool Morrissey.

Circumstances surrounding the making of Miss America remain a little misty. Production is credited to guitarist Michael Brook, but Andy Partridge from XTC is known to have worked on the record briefly. Some versions of the story have him leaving after a day, finding O’Hara too difficult to work with; others have her shit-canning him and engineer John Leckie because Partridge disparaged her band and Leckie was a follower of Rajneesh, of which O’Hara disapproved. Joe Boyd has said that most of the tracks were recorded and co-produced by him at Rockfield Studios in Wales in 1984 (he doesn’t say whether the co-producers were O’Hara, Brook or both).

What we do know for sure is that Virgin didn’t like it, insisting that more songs be written and recorded, and that the record’s release was delayed for years. But while Miss America is undoubtedly unusual, it’s hard to imagine that the finished record was light years away from the demos, or that those demos hadn’t displayed O’Hara’s unorthodox vocals. Why Virgin ever thought that O’Hara had cheated them out of a hit by going all strange on them, God only knows.

Listening to Miss America, it is hard to tear yourself away from the vocal performances that so aggrieved Virgin. Van Morrison is the usually cited point of comparison, and there’s something to that; both singers are interested in getting past literal semantic meaning. Both enjoy playing with the sound of words, altering stress and rhythm, pushing the beat as far as they can until the vocal almost sounds unmoored from the music that surrounds them. Both singers love to play in what would usually be the space between lines.

Unlike the jazzy Morrison, who reportedly sings live as the band plays, O’Hara’s method was to wait until the backing track had been recorded to her satisfaction – and the band’s playing throughout is impressive; superhumanly clean and precise – and then riff on her written melodies and lyrics. No take recreated the previous one. Each song was a process of discovery. On her most febrile performances (Year in Song, say), it’s possible to hear her stumbling on a new idea that she can work with for a few bars (her rasped “I’m not ready to go under”; the metamorphosis of “joy is the aim” to “is the aim, eh, joy?”; “pretty soon too much”). Even compared to Van Morrison at his most free, it’s questing, visionary stuff, utterly removed from the usual work of the popular-music singer.

While her more exploratory performances may be the defining element of her artistry, there are several lovely country-torch songs at the record’s still heart, songs that Patsy Cline or late-’80s kd lang could have recorded: Dear Darling, Keeping You in Mind and You Will Be Loved Again. It’s the play of these songs against the tougher material – My Friends Have, Year in Song and the deathless, wonderful Body’s in Trouble, which I must have listened to 15 times in the couple of days I was writing this – that makes Miss America such a three-dimensional classic, and that explains the ardour of her fans, who may have given up expecting O’Hara to make another record, but probably haven’t quite given up hope.

Miss-America

Pneuma – 50 Foot Wave

In the mid-1990s, the economics of the record industry caught up with Kristin Hersh. She couldn’t afford to keep Throwing Muses on the road and the band weren’t selling enough records to justify the effort and expense of making them under the old model. Her solo albums, on the other hand, were very useful money-spinners: cheap and quick to knock out, and cheap and simple to tour behind. Have guitar will travel. Cheaply.

But eventually she reconvened the Muses for what longtime fans assumed would be one last hurrah, a self-titled record released in 2003. A belligerent-sounding effort, only marginally sweetened by the presence of Muses co-founder Tanya Donelly on harmony vocals, it contained many of the elements she would bring the following year to her new band, 50 Foot Wave: asymmetrical song structures, knotty time signatures and elliptical melodies.

Hersh has written (in her memoir, released as Rat Girl in the US and Paradoxical Undressing in the UK), that she has heard music in her head since a car hit knocked her off her bike in 1985 and her head slammed into the ground. In the mid-2000s, the songs she was hearing called for a different approach, particularly percussively. They needed greater aggression, more power, less finesse. David Narcizo, a player with impressive marching-band snare drum skills but fundamentally a guy with a light touch, was replaced by Rob Ahlers, who plays with enormous power and what sounds like desperation, as if his drums need to be constantly beaten off with sticks lest they do him some kind of physical injury.

Golden Ocean, the band’s 2004 debut full-length, was a shock in an age when so much popular rock music aped the loose-limbed grooves of British post-punk and the first side of David Bowie’s Low. Frantic and scabrous, 50 Foot Wave were unapologetically about power, energy and attack. Hersh, her voice long since abraded into an old-lady croak (a croak that, if I’m honest, limits the appeal to me of hearing her in acoustic guitar-and-vocal mode; it’s not a subtle instrument), frequently broke into raspy screams as the snare drum took a vicious beating. To give you an idea of the tone of Golden Ocean, Pneuma – one of the best things on the record, but by no means the only standout – hinges on a breakdown section where Hersh drawls “You know what?” three times over guitar feedback, as if beckoning the listener to come closer to her, before screaming, “Shut the fuck up!” But while the music was somewhat difficult – loud and confrontational, and with frequent hard left turns in structure and rhythm – it was the best record she made in the noughties, the more welcome for being so unexpected.

50ftwave1l-r Hersh, Muses/50 Foot Wave mainstay Bernard Georges, Rob Ahlers

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved, Part 4 – Garoux des Larmes by Throwing Muses

As drummer for Throwing Muses, David Narcizo has held one of the trickiest jobs in popular music for thirty years. Kristin Hersh’s songs are not, and have never been, simple; they are full of twists and turns, tempo changes, time signature changes and unusual feels. Narcizo has coped with it all; he’s even made it danceable. No doubt he’s been helped by the band’s series of quality bass players: Leslie Langston, Fred Abong and Bernard Georges. But still, he’s made a tough job look pretty easy and instinctive for three decades.

The early Throwing Muses sound lasted for two albums and two EPs, more or less: the self-titled debut, the Chains Changed EP (both 1986), House Tornado and the Fat Skier EP (both 1987). Stylistically, the songs from this era are characterised by their restlessness, their abrupt changes in feel, tempo and mood. Narcizo’s drums had to find ways to live in the quiet parts of these songs without overwhelming them while driving the heavier sections along (the songs would never have felt right if Narcizo had allowed Hersh’s guitar to carry him; no good rock music works that way). It would have been a challenge for anyone, but these guys were just kids, really: 19 or 20 years old. What they achieved is remarkable.

I’ve said before, I think, that I feel the standard of the average US drummer compared with the average drummer from the UK is higher, which (just hypothesising here) you could put down to the disciplines of marching-band snare drumming on one hand and jazz drumming on the other. In the UK, you have to go much further out of your way to learn these skills, so many don’t.

I’m not sure whether David Narcizo ever studied jazz, but I’d bet dollars to doughnuts he played snare drum in the school band, as 16th-note march-time feels make up about 50% of the drum parts on the band’s early records. My favourites are early single Fish, Reel (from Chains Changed), a Tanya Donelly song in which Narcizo switches between heavy tom patterns in the verses and his trademark snare march in the choruses (making both sound light and agile and funky through the addition of a stomping kick drum); and the rather gonzo Garoux des Larmes, from The Fat Skier.

Garoux des Larmes has probably the most intricate patterns of all Narcizo’s marching parts. The sticking is constant 16th notes, but the pattern is played over snare and toms rather than just snare drum (as it is on Fish and the chorus of Reel). Maybe highly trained drummers would consider this no big deal, but how you play intricate 16th-note patterns for several minutes at a time, with power, precision, steady tempo and a good feel, without ever getting your arms in a tangle, is completely beyond me. There’s a live audience video from 1987 that gives a good idea of what’s involved in playing this stuff. If you’re really familiar with the record, you’ll note the extra hi-hat work that Narcizo throws in here.

The band reached something of a crossroads on 1989’s Hunkpapa. Mania is an absolute career highlight, and for that alone the album is essential, but Hunkpapa had fewer marches and a heavier two-and-four sound overall; the band was evidently changing. The Real Ramona, the only record the band made with Abong on bass, was magnificent, and when Narcizo plays that huge opening fill on Counting Backwards at the start of The Real Ramona, it’s an amazing moment, but it’s also the moment that signals the end of the band’s phase one; the frantic march-time rhythms never did return. Red Heaven, University and Limbo saw Hersh turn up the guitars, and while Narcizo still played unmatched grip, he’d turned into a backbeat drummer, as the music demanded he should. All the records they made between their debut and Limbo have great moments (University‘s my pick of the Bernard Georges era), but Throwing Muses’ early music, thirty years on, remains immediately identitfiable, absolutely inimitable and still astonishing, and David Narcizo deserves just as much credit for that as Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donelly.

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Throwing Muses mk I: l-r David Narcizo, Tanya Donelly, Kristin Hersh, Leslie Langston

How I See It – Carina Round (repost)

Hi folks. Christmas is a busy season. The chances of me posting anything this week were looking slim, so I decided to go back into the archive and pull something out that was originally posted a couple of years ago. Hopefully this’ll be new to some of you!

Carina Round’s debut album was released in 2001 with little fanfare on Animal Noise. It got some enthusiastic reviews, which tended to concentrate on Round’s voice and what she could do with it, but these tended to note her as one for the future, rather than as a fully developed talent. The Sunday Times reviewer, though, was less circumspect: ‘One of the most extraordinary debut albums I’ve ever heard – absolutely brilliant.’ I suspect it was this review that I read and that convinced me to track the album down.

The First Blood Mystery is nothing if not striking. Round’s voice may seem like a standard-issue ‘UK singer singing jazz with US accent’ kind of thing on some songs (she’d had a residency at Ronnie Scott’s in Birmingham before making her first record) but she could take it out to places where PJ Harvey, Kristin Hersh, Robert Plant and Corin Tucker were more comfortable: wailing, howling, screaming, paint-stripping kinds of places. Ribbons and On Leaving, the album’s last two tracks, were extraordinarily emotionally raw, uneasy pieces of music. When listened to in the right mood, they can be overwhelming. At other times when I hear them, they seem gauche, over the top. The emotional climax of On Leaving is also marred by a horrendous flub from the drummer, one I’m surprised they lived with. I’ve edited around it – replacing the affected half-bar with one from a later repeat – to be able to listen to the song without being taken out of it right at the crucial moment. Frankly, it was a shoddy piece of record making to allow it to survive to the master.

The album’s key stretch is the 3-song run from track two to track four: Lightbulb Song, How I See It and The Waves.This is where the album’s at its most adventurous in terms of texture and arrangement, while retaining some of the shock and awe of Round’s voice. Flutes, subtle electronic touches, electric guitars and vocal harmonies go to some seldom-explored places. Round channels Diane Cluck after the first chorus in Lightbulb Song and ear-catching use is made of harmonised flutes. One track later, How I See It uses Cousteau singer Liam McKahey’s lugubrious voice for some wordless moans and it’s a fine match for the song, which somewhat recalls the band’s Your Day Will Come, How I See It, though, is a more idiosyncratic work than Cousteau’s scotch-and-fine-tailoring revivalism. Spooky folk jazz with muted trumpet suited her well, and How I See It is the song I come back to most.

But this aspect of her first album didn’t make it to her subsequent work, which got bigger, louder, shinier, rockier, more adolescently gothic and progressively more dull. She moved to LA, played the Viper Room and made her third album with Glen Ballard. She toured with Annie Lennox. Her fourth record featured Dave Stewart. The jig was up. Who was giving her career advice? Why did no one stop her?

Listening to The First Blood Mystery is a strange experience, 13 years after the its release. I can’t think of another debut record that had so much promise where the author went on to do so little of worth afterwards. I don’t like writing about records about which I can’t be more or less unambiguously positive, but so many of my reactions to How I See It, and to The First Blood Mystery more generally, are complicated by its author’s failure to develop artistically from such an impressive starting point. What should have been the beginning of something really important is instead a 30-minute one-off, seven songs that could have led anywhere and instead didn’t really lead anywhere.

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Carina Round

Pod by the Breeders

Hi there. It’s the day after the UK general election today, and I have to admit, I didn’t feel a great deal like writing anything other than a long, angry rant. But that would just have made me feel worse without actually changing anything. Instead I decided it’d be a good idea to write about something I genuinely don’t have a bad word for: Pod, by the Breeders, a subject I’ve been holding in reserve for a month or so. On another day, my write-up might have been more exuberant, but this is what I’ve got in me today.

A couple of years ago a bit of a, um, splash was made about the 20th anniversary of the Breeders’ second album, Last Splash. That’s the one with Cannonball, Divine Hammer and Saints on it. I remain unconvinced by Last Splash. I’ll go into bat for Divine Hammer and Cannonball, even if I personally have no wish to hear it again. The cover of Drivin’ on 9 is a career highlight for Kim Deal as a singer. No Aloha and New Year I’ll keep. That’s five out of 15. The rest I’d struggle to say anything about, good, bad or indifferent.

Pod, though. Pod sounds stranger and more wonderful every year. I never stop going back to it. And if I ever needed an excuse to write about it, it’s 25 years old this year.

OK, Mr So Deep, you say. Pod. The one with Tanya Donelly on it, recorded by Steve Albini? Pretty obvious why you like that one more, isn’t it?

Well, I can’t deny my fondness for those two artists. But Pod is Deal’s album. Literally so, as the plan that Donelly and Deal cooked up for the Breeders originally is that they’d make an album of Deal songs before then making a record of Donelly songs (they demoed some of the material that Donelly ended up using for the first Belly record, Star). Deal sang lead and wrote or co-wrote every song on Pod except the cover of the Beatles’ Happiness is a Warm Gun.

There’s nothing else like it; the closest I’ve heard is the Breeders’ own Title TK, but that’s a weak brew indeed compared to Pod. There’s a hint of the Pixies (still Deal’s main band at the time, and would remain so for another year or so after Pod’s release) in the way the songs put classic AB form in the service of some unlikely, surreal, subjects. The way that Deal’s and Donelly’s guitars play around each other sometimes recalls the interplay of Kristin Hersh and Donelly on Throwing Muses records (like Deal, Donelly had one more record with her main band left in her at this point).

But even with those precedents, it’s a singular album. The arrangements are sparse – there’s much less of that steady-state distorted guitar that you get on Pixies records – and the record is very “live” sounding: there’s background chatter audible at the end of songs, and all the way through the quiet, spoken intro verses of Metal Man; a spontaneous-sounding outro jam extends When I Was a Painter by over a minute (a long time when the record only lasts half an hour); Deal’s voice breaks into a squeal on Oh! and is left uncorrected. Overdubs sound few, and it wouldn’t surprise me if there were none at all.

It’s far from passionless, but it is somewhat detached-sounding. Indeed the album’s most compelling music comes from the tension between Deal’s frequently blank delivery and the themes and ideas that the lyrics hint at but never fully reveal. While dark, the effect is always just short of menacing, since Deal and Donelly are not sparing with hooks. I’ve remarked before on how Donelly’s work with Belly played in the space between the lulling and the nightmarish. Deal’s songs on Pod work similarly. Perhaps this influence ran from Donelly to Deal because it seems to have departed from the Breeders when she left; it’s entirely absent from Last Splash and is only occasionally tangible on later records.

It goes without saying that Pod sounds great, too. Spacious and powerful. With the mixes left relatively sparse and the guitars frequently hard-panned, Pod is as good as it gets for fans of the Albini drum sound. Britt Walford, on loan from Slint and playing under the pseudonym Shannon Doughton, sounds enormous. And what drummer doesn’t want to sound enormous?

If you’re unfamiliar with Pod and have any fondness for the indie rock music of that era, you are missing out on one of the finest records of its type.

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The Breeders in 1992, circa Safari: l-r Kelley Deal, Tanya Donelly, Josephine Wiggs, Britt Walford, Kim Deal (the Deal sister are identical twins, so if I’ve got them the wrong way round, do forgive me!)

Moon Over Boston – Tanya Donelly

Tanya Donelly is one of my favourite musicians. The step-sister of Kristin Hersh – leader of Boston-area art-punk band Throwing Muses since the mid-1980s – Donelly was the group’s lead guitarist, harmony singer and occasional singer-songwriter for their first four albums, between 1983 when they formed and 1991 when she left after The Real Ramona (which is one of the Muses’ very best records, right up there with the debut). Donelly was also a founding member of the Breeders, and Pod bears heavy traces of her involvement; the group were never quite as interesting to me after she stepped aside to focus on her post-Muses band, Belly.

Unlike Throwing Muses, who continued their honourable labours without ever catching a break, Belly were immediately successful: top-five album chart success in both the US and the UK, top-20 singles, heavy rotation on MTV and radio, and Grammy nominations. Donelly was an inspiration to anyone who’d ever been a second fiddle but harboured ambitions of succeeding on their own terms, and she did it making music that was shiny and inviting, but with a disconcerting aura of strangeness and spookiness, a sound I’ve described elsewhere as like something bad going down in Toytown. Belly were quite a thing.

Alas Belly’s success didn’t last, and the group unravelled after recording a wonderful second album that didn’t strike the same chord with the public that their first had. Donelly took a year or two to come back with her first solo record, Lovesongs for Underdogs, and it was a slightly odd mix, blending the shiniest hooks of her career (Pretty Deep is an alterna-world smash) with some of the disquieting obliqueness that had marked Belly out as something special on tracks such as Swoon, as well as occasional straitforward ballads like Manna, which Donelly had never really engaged in before. The production, though, was pure AAA, which didn’t suit the more idiosyncratic material, but didn’t quite elevate the poppier songs either.

While the Lovesongs era didn’t succeed in making Donelly a solo star the way it seemed designed to, it did produce an enduring favourite of mine. Moon Over Boston was the B-side to the album’s second single, The Bright Light. To my knowledge, it’s the only proper recording of the song, which was written by Gary “Skeggie” Kendall, a guitarist, promoter and Boston scenester from the 1980s and ’90s, formerly of the bands Tackle Box and the Toughskin. Probably cut live with the full band, like a proper jazz side, it’s a spot-on recreation – produced by Kendall and long-time Boston hero Gary Smith – of a certain type of small-band jazz record, with exactly the right kind of warm saxophone sound and all the proper passing chords; it’s even got the old-school, free-time intro. It’s a beautiful record, and Donelly’s voice is surprisingly adept at this sort of tune, sounded not unlike Blossom Dearie. I’m convinced it could become a standard if someone were to make a romantic comedy called Moon Over Boston and feature this as the title track. Maybe I should get to work on a screenplay.

Donelly stepped away from music in the mid-noughties, and trained as a post-partum doula. However over the last year or so, she’s recently put out a sequence of EPs, the Swan Song series, a title which she says doesn’t indicate imminent retirement. Hersh, meanwhile, powers on. The most driven musician I can think of (see here for some of her backstory), Hersh will make music as long as she’s got two working hands and a voice. Next month, I’m going to get to see Throwing Muses play in London with Donelly guesting. Let’s just say I’m looking forward to that one.

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Mania – Throwing Muses

 

I was flying, flying through the air, thinking, So this is what this feels like.

As the pavement came up toward me […] a thought occurred. You’re about to hit your head harder than you’ve ever hit it before, so maybe you should… you know… go limp.

I lay in the street, feeling the brand new sensation of a lot of blood leaving my body, then tried to unfold myself. Lifting my left leg, I noticed there was no longer a foot at the end of it.

Then a woman appeared from nowhere and leaned over me. She was wearing mirrored sunglasses. What I saw in her glasses was bizarre: I had no face. The front of my head was hamburger and blood with two blue eyes staring out.

When I turned away to look for my missing foot, the woman grabbed what used to be my face and turned it toward her. ‘You were hit by a car!’ She spoke loudly and slowly, carefully articulating each word. ‘You’re gonna be fine!’

Why is she talking to me like I’m foreign?

 

Kristin Hersh, Paradoxical Undressing, 2010

 

In 1985 in Providence, Rhode Island, an eighteen-year-old Kristin Hersh was knocked off her bicycle by a well-known local oddball, referred to in her book only as ‘the crazy witch’, who drove off without stopping. In hospital, Hersh realised she was hearing things that other people were not. Loud, abstract sounds, a bit like heavy machinery. Slowly these metal noises became tonal and organised. She was experiencing auditory hallucinations, and progressed to hallucinating whole songs. Strange songs, fragmentary songs, songs with funny out-of-key chords, jarring tempo changes and tunes that took a while to decipher.

Hersh began presenting these songs to her band Throwing Muses, already together for four years and a fixture on the local punk scene. But her behaviour was getting strange: she couldn’t sleep so spent most of her nights breaking into swimming pools and doing lengths until she was too exhausted to stay awake any more. She had boundless energy, so much so that her bandmates were concerned about her inability to slow down, let alone stop. She wanted to know everything, see everything, live everywhere. Eventually she was informed that this was classic manic behaviour and was diagnosed as bi-polar, a diagnosis she struggled to accept. She was given a cocktail of powerful drugs and electro-convulsive therapy. She stopped taking the drugs when she fell pregnant a few months later.

The song Mania, then, was written by a woman who knew whereof she spoke. Fast and unrelenting (unlike many early Muses songs, it barrels along at the same tempo for its whole duration), Mania was her most vivid, if not her most lucid, musical reflection of her mental state. It’s not easy listening – at this remove it’s hard for me to recall how hard I had to work as a 16-year-old hearing Hersh for the first time to get inside this music and make sense of it. I had no reference for it, knew of no one else who sang songs like this, this thing, with its frenetic country-polka rhythm in the verses, crazed Subterranean Homesick Blues-style vocal delivery, and unsettling breakdowns where Hersh declares ‘shocking is therapy’, before screaming ‘electrify your head’. Hersh is unique, a one-off, undervalued and inevitably taken for granted.

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Throwing Muses have breakfast, 1989: l-r, Leslie Langston (bass), Tanya Donelly (guitar, vocals), Kristin Hersh (vocals, guitar), David Narcizo (drums)

The early Throwing Muses records (their eponymous debut, second album House Tornado and third album Hunkpapa) are the best documents of this frantic and unsettling period in Hersh’s artistic career. 1990’s The Real Ramona was a transition, a more considered, conventional record with pop hooks and more ABAB song structures. Nevertheless it retains enough of Hersh’s spiky originality to be compelling in the way a proper Muses record is.

After Ramona, Hersh’s stepsister Tanya Donelly left the band, making a record with Kim Deal as the Breeders (Pod, a classic) before forming her own group, Belly. With their more approachable but pleasantly strange sound – like something bad going down in Toytown – Belly achieved instant commercial success in its first year, the photogenic Donelly even being approached to appear in a Gap ad. Star reached number 2 in the UK album charts and sold 800,000 copies in the US, and Feed the Tree was a number-one Modern Rock hit single. These were indeed heady times for semi-popular indie rock artists.

But surprisingly Hersh’s commercial peaks were ahead of her too. The bombastic and rather hollow Red Heaven from 1992 reached number 13 in the UK album charts, and 1994’s University peaked at number 10 (in the US it fared less well and Sire dropped them). Most impressively, Hersh’s solo album Hips and Makers reached number 7 in the UK album charts, which for an entirely acoustic mood record with some pretty unconventional songwriting seems scarcely believable today.

For me, Hersh hasn’t recaptured the greatness of her work between 1986 and 1994. That her voice has become ever hoarser and throatier doesn’t help, and nowadays she frequently writes compelling tunes she can’t adequately sing. But apart from that, something that I essentially can’t define is missing from her work since the late 1990s. I’m trying to work out what it is at the moment by reacquainting myself with the early Muses stuff and Hips and Makers, before moving on to her output since 2000, all of which I have but none of which has ever really connected with me. I’ve got tickets to see the Muses in Islington later this year, which I’m looking forward to hugely, but I wish I could have seen them in their pomp 25 years ago at the Town & Country. That would have been quite a thing.

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Throwing Muses on the beach, 1990: l-r, Narcizo, Hersh, Fred Abong, Donelly

 

How I See It – Carina Round

Carina Round’s debut album was released in 2001 with little fanfare on Animal Noise. It got some enthusiastic reviews, which tended to concentrate on Round’s voice and what she could do with it, but these tended to note her as one for the future, rather than as a fully developed talent. The Sunday Times reviewer, though, was less circumspect: ‘One of the most extraordinary debut albums I’ve ever heard – absolutely brilliant.’ I suspect it was this review that I read and that convinced me to track the album down.

The First Blood Mystery is nothing if not striking. Round’s voice may seem like a standard-issue ‘UK singer singing jazz with US accent’ kind of thing on some songs (she’d had a residency at Ronnie Scott’s in Birmingham before making her first record) but she could take it out to places where PJ Harvey, Kristin Hersh, Robert Plant and Corin Tucker were more comfortable: wailing, howling, screaming, paint-stripping kinds of places. Ribbons and On Leaving, the album’s last two tracks, were extraordinarily emotionally raw, uneasy pieces of music. When listened to in the right mood, they can be overwhelming. At other times when I hear them, they seem gauche, over the top. The emotional climax of On Leaving is also marred by a horrendous flub from the drummer, one I’m surprised they lived with. I’ve edited around it – replacing the affected half-bar with one from a later repeat – to be able to listen to the song without being taken out of it right at the crucial moment. Frankly, it was a shoddy piece of record making to allow it to survive to the master.

The album’s key stretch is the 3-song run from track two to track four: Lightbulb Song, How I See It and The Waves.This is where the album’s at its most adventurous in terms of texture and arrangement, while retaining some of the shock and awe of Round’s voice. Flutes, subtle electronic touches, electric guitars and vocal harmonies go to some seldom-explored places. Round channels Diane Cluck after the first chorus in Lightbulb Song and ear-catching use is made of harmonised flutes. One track later, How I See It uses Cousteau singer Liam McKahey’s lugubrious voice for some wordless moans and it’s a fine match for the song, which somewhat recalls the band’s Your Day Will Come, How I See It, though, is a more idiosyncratic work than Cousteau’s scotch-and-fine-tailoring revivalism. Spooky folk jazz with muted trumpet suited her well, and How I See It is the song I come back to most.

But this aspect of her first album didn’t make it to her subsequent work, which got bigger, louder, shinier, rockier, more adolescently gothic and progressively more dull. She moved to LA, played the Viper Room and made her third album with Glen Ballard. She toured with Annie Lennox. Her fourth record featured Dave Stewart. The jig was up.

Listening to The First Blood Mystery is a strange experience, 13 years after the its release. I can’t think of another debut record that had so much promise where the author went on to do so little of worth afterwards. I don’t like writing about records about which I can’t be more or less unambiguously positive, but so many of my reactions to How I See It, and to The First Blood Mystery more generally, are complicated by its author’s failure to develop artistically from here. What should have been the start of something really important is instead a 30-minute one-off, seven songs that could have led anywhere and instead led nowhere.

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Carina Round

Midlake @ the Shepherd’s Bush Empire – review

Yesterday I took a break from playing music to go with Mel and watch some music: Midlake at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, supported by Horse Thief and Charlie Bowdery.

Bowdery was on first and, while impressive for a performer and writer of his age (he’s 15), he did not strike me as being ready for national exposure of the kind he must be getting, and one wonders whether his needs (as an artist or a young man) are really being best served by his being asked to play in front of large, uninterested, basically empty rooms. Would he not be better advised to work as hard as he can on his writing for the next two or three years while playing in smaller, intimate venue, and come back to the big stage when he’s learned his craft a little bit? If he were ready as a writer, maybe it’d be fine to throw him in there. But as it is, best of luck to him.

Oklahoma’s Horse Thief were the main support act. A psychedelic folk band (my goodness, there’s a lot of those around now) formed in Midlake’s home town of Denton, Texas, but currently based in Oklahoma City, Horse Thief are, like Midlake, signed to Bella Union. Again, the surprise…

They clearly had a few fans in the crowd last night, but Mel and I were not among them. They have a sound worked out, for sure, but song after song passed without a single snippet of melody you could take away with you afterwards. While they would no doubt offer as a counter to this that their music is about feel, offering them platforms on which they can get on with the business of just being Horse Thief, none of them are interesting enough players to justify distending the songs and jamming on them. The singer’s voice too, is an acquired taste. Close your eyes and you could be listening to Billy Corgan. Full marks to the guitarist for his Wilko Johnson-style head movements, though (forward and back, as opposed to the Thom Yorke/Kristin Hersh side to side). Very cool and I was rather jealous.

The contrast with Midlake was stark. Midlake formed at university as a jazz band, and more than in the past those roots are evident, both on their new album, Antiphon, and particularly on stage. When I saw them a few years ago in Oxford, they were stunningly good, but there was a reined-in quality to their performance, which judging from last night may have been the influence of now-departed singer-songwriter Tim Smith, who didn’t crack a smile at all that night and seemed a rather joyless presence, for all that he was key to their sound then.

Antiphon is the most honest representation of the band as a whole, as opposed to one person’s vision that we were trying to facilitate” – Eric Pulido

In interviews since his departure, co-guitarist and former harmony singer Eric Pulido (who’s taken over from Smith as frontman) has suggested that Midlake weren’t a hugely happy crew during that tour. That’s only one guy’s side of the story – and as I said, they played wonderfully regardless – but last night they were clearly off the leash. Drummer McKenzie Smith was in fine form, his enthusiastic fills betraying his jazz roots – there were hints of Harvey Mason in his fills (now much more frequent), and the tom-heavy beats of the Antiphon tracks suggest a possible influence from Can’s Jaki Liebezeit.

The old songs naturally enough drew most of the loudest appreciation of the evening, and Van Occupanther was revisited more frequently than The Courage of Others (Small Mountain and Children of the Grounds getting an airing and nothing else, unless I missed it). Which makes sense – in retrospect, Courage sounds like one road they could have gone down after Van Occupanther, and Antiphon another. But the crowd seemed to enjoy the newer songs too, which the band attacked far harder than in the past.

Pulido sung well, but his voice was unfortunately buried in a very murky mix, which foregrounded the low end of the bass guitar and drums at the expense of the vocals and snare, which lacked punch and, surprisingly, volume – McKenzie Smith is a light-hitting, unmatched-grip player, and brute volume of the backbeat isn’t a hallmark of his playing, but neither is a thunderous kick drum, and he certainly had that yesterday, so the drum balance that we heard was not coming from his playing. Perhaps it was a democratic decision by the band to sound this way live – ‘We’re a band now, not a singer-songwriter with backing musicians, so the vocals are just part of the sound.’ But the voices were notably lower in the mix than on the new record, and there didn’t seem much need for it to be that way.* The mix did gain a little in clarity and focus as the songs rolled by, but it did somewhat mar my enjoyment of the gig (yeah, I’m one of those people now apparently).

Still, they remain a great live band and I was happy to see them. And happy for them that the biggest cheers of the night came after a stomping performance of The Old and the Young, rather than from an older song like Roscoe or Head Home. It got the crowd moving and singing along way more than any other song last night, which is nice for Midlake 2.0. When you think about it, some of the biggest bands in the world (Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac) have survived the departures of key singing/aongwriting members. There seems no reason why Midlake can’t carry on in this line-up for as long as they choose.

 

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*I’ve done enough live sound to know it’s a thankless task, and a difficult one, so I don’t want to pile in on the crew last night. I get it. All kinds of things can be going on that are totally not your fault – but everyone and their brother will have an opinion on what you’re doing wrong and hold you responsible.

Favourite anecdote/worst scenario from my CV: very busy one-day festival in Southend a few years back. 5-minute changeovers between sets. No house drum kit. A lot of acoustic instruments to mike up. The kind of day that runs you to exhaustion and makes you hate everyone. One of the bands’ lead guitarist (playing a DI’d acoustic for a certain song) is saying over the mike that his guitar’s not working, leading everyone to look in my direction and start muttering. Once I made it through the crowd to the stage, I found that the clumsy clod had stood on his cable and pulled it out of the DI box. Yeah, it’s the things you can’t control that’ll kill you.