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Catching Her 50-Foot Wave

November 23, 2005
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Just when you think you know Kristin Hersh's game, she changes the rules of play.

In 1986, Throwing Muses - which she and stepsister Tanya Donelly founded in high school - released the first of eight off-kilter pop albums. Donelly, who left to get the Breeders off the ground before hitting it big with Belly, was long gone by the time Hersh caught the singer-songwriter bug in the mid-'90s. But rather than redefine the band's sound, Hersh divided her time between the Muses' shimmery alt-rock and her anguished acoustic outbursts.

To this day, she maintains that business, not artistic differences, killed Throwing Muses. She's said that personnel changes - of which there were many - had more to do with outside factors than the group's internal dynamics. And it's easy to believe her when you read the credits. Relationships don't necessarily end. Sometimes, they just evolve.

Hersh and Muses bassist Bernard Georges moved on to the more aggressive 50 Foot Wave; Rob Ahlers replaced David Narcizo on drums, but Narcizo is still involved on a visual level, providing dark, ragged art and design that fits the trio's sound.

Having lost one band to industry indifference, Hersh came up with some ground rules for 50 Foot Wave: to avoid the record/release/tour rut, they'd release an EP of all-new material every nine months - as a mother of four boys, that's a gestational period she knows well - and play 100 shows a year.

That worked at first. But last year's self-titled six-song EP wasn't easy to find. Sure enough, when it came time to release their next effort, Hersh and company jumped at a distribution deal with BMG, which put the second disc in more stores.

But major-label muscle doesn't come without strings, and "Golden Ocean" strayed from the band's game plan. At 11 songs, it's more than an EP, and since three are cherry-picked from the first release, it doesn't quite live up to the promise of all-new music.

Still, it's hard to cry foul when the songs are so powerful and bewildering. Hersh's maternal experience pays off in unexpected ways. The woman who once recorded a deceptively sweet-sounding album of traditional murder ballads with piano and vocal accompaniment from 6-year-old son Ryder now shreds her voice in unholy fury.

No Day at the Beach
Take "Golden Ocean," which explodes the myth of the mellow mother: "Your baby takes your balls/and gives you back your teeth/Your baby takes your balls and lights a fire in your belly." Or the galloping, screeching "Clara Bow," with its vivid hatred for summer vacation and the cabin fever it causes: "Paste-eaters like this sad season/Strong women gripe and bite your heavy tongues."

Dark stuff. But in Hersh's hands, darkness is enlightening and liberating. Because no matter how attached any mother is to her kids and no matter how much fun sitcoms make it seem, making and raising a family is messy work. Parenthood isn't a cakewalk for anyone - least of all for Hersh, whose battle for custody over her eldest son inspired some very angsty Throwing Muses songs. (Dylan, now 17, is airing his own angst with noise-rockers Happy Birthday L.A.)

Her playbook may have changed over the years, but even when Hersh shapes her songs from a new angle, they could have only come from a singular, gifted mind. Her guitar technique was inimitable when she was a kid, and it's only gotten more inventive.

But most notably, a frightening candor runs through her work.

Her current band isn't a culmination of her career. It's just one of several true paths in a twisted adventure.

Hersh will go it alone at Philadelphia's Tin Angel on Wednesday, Nov. 30. Motherhood's call and 50 Foot Wave's squall aren't enough for her; she's also working on her second collection of murder ballads and her sixth solo of original songs.

Just when you think you've got her pegged, she moves in another direction. Fortunately, all her paths are worth following.

 

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