Kristin Hersh isn't clever. She doesn't play with cerebral wit or wily rhyme. Hersh sings from the gut; brilliant fragments of phrase and thought. Multicolored shards of songs explode from her chest, swirl about her. Hersh plucks them from the air, laces them together with melody and rhyme, wraps them with beautifully askew acoustic guitar. “Hey you, up for a spin?” Hersh questions at the beginning of Strange Angels, the singer and guitarist's second solo record, the first since she disbanded Throwing Muses last year. Hersh sings the line less as a question than a statement, changing an invitation into what seems like a conversation with herself. It's hard to interpret Hersh's songs, to create meaning from the juxtaposition of images and fleeting moments of clarity. Their detachment and insularity are frustrating; it's less like Hersh wrote them to find an audience, or make sense of something, than that they just appear in a rush of unmediated poesy. (She's said as much in interviews.)
The album's best song, “Like You,” is one of the most orchestrated. Hersh's guitar wavers between big, thick plucked melodies and quick forceful chord changes. Simple piano accompaniment emphasizes the chorus. By the end of the song, a subdued cello comes in and ethereal vocals mourn in the background. The music is beautiful, but it's fairly standard folk rock. The lyrics are anything but:
You nature lover, you country punk
You bowl me over, and I'm not that drunk
You're one in a million, you're one in two
You're not like women, and I'm not like you
Whoever Hersh is talking to or talking about — a lover, a friend, herself — is a binary character. The key to understanding that song, and Hersh's work at large, appears on the hugely underrated Hips and Makers, Hersh's first solo record. One cover song can reveal more about a performer than her entire catalog. On Hips that cover song is called “The Cuckoo.”
“The Coo Coo Bird,” captured seminally by a banjo-playing Clarence Ashley in 1929, was rereleased last year on Harry Smith's American Folk Anthology. In the liner notes to that collection, critic Greil Marcus explains that it is a “folk-lyric” song — “made up of verbal fragments that had no direct or logical relationship to each other, but were drawn from a floating pool of thousands of disconnected verses, couplets, one-liners, pieces of eight.” The folk-lyric form, Marcus says, allowed for songs to miscegenate between black and white cultures. When a performer fused fragments and recorded a folk-lyric song, he or she was effectively bringing America's black and white cultures — America's black and white history — together in one song.
Hersh's version of “Cuckoo” is so dead-on it would be hard to believe that she doesn't understand exactly its history, its significant parallels with her own work. I don't want to get too precious about it, but you can think of what Hersh does in similar terms: drawing from her own fantastic thoughts and bursts of insight, instead of pieces of English folk songs and mountain maxims. But when Hersh writes, she bridges the binary aspects of her own personality: schizophrenic, bipolar; mother, musician; home, tour; masculine, feminine.
Hersh formed Throwing Muses as a 14-year-old girl living in Newport, R.I., with her stepsister, Tanya Donelley, in 1984. Around the time of the band's first record Hersh was diagnosed with schizophrenia. A year later, doctors told her she was only bipolar. (The good news is that you're not totally crazy; the bad news is that you're crazy.) By the band's second record, before she was 20 years old, Hersh had her first child.
Pursuing rock as art, the band was alternative in that 1980s pre-alternative world. They offered songs about adolescence, about insanity, about depression, domesticity, and self-doubt, all jerked with meticulous, shifting riff patterns that recalled bits of Mission of Burma, Meat Puppets, and the Minutemen. The self-titled debut, released in 1986 by the then-significant 4AD, earned the band loads of deserved respect in the U.K., but only a cult following of rock critics and suicidal teen-agers in the States.
Part of what makes pop music interesting is the way the canon shifts. Ska comes back and the venerable Skatalites are suddenly celebrated again; Kurt Cobain name-checks the Raincoats and suddenly the band reappears in stores and stories about PJ Harvey. Significance is never further than a retrospective away. Throwing Muses, who were considered groundbreaking in their day, are slipping from the canon. When Rolling Stone, in its “Women of Rock” issue, attempted to construct a comprehensive arc to what the magazine always considered the second sex, it didn't even mention Hersh and her Muses. Last year both the Replacements and the Pixies — neither of these bands much in the public mind these days — got double-CD retrospectives. Throwing Muses, who even a doubter would have to concede made artistically vital records, are invisible.
But Hersh continues, now on Rykodisc, the discriminating label of last resort for underrespected talent. On Strange Angels, she begins where Hips and Makers stopped. At times it seems that lyrically, Hersh is Patti Smith's daughter. Both have songs fueled by a strange internal poetry. But Smith mimicked the male rock stars she worshipped. Hersh is beyond that. If Hersh contributed anything to the history of rock, it's the notion that women are real, rounded characters, self-conscious beings. It's possible that there has never been a true rock star so intensely feminine. Hersh's women are fragile, flawed, complicated, and ass-kicking: “I'm feeling sharp/ I am numb,” she sings on “Some Catch Flies”; “Use me I get stronger, I get weaker when you treat me like a queen,” she sings on “Strained”; on “Rock Candy Brain” she's “about through being your plaything” and “about through being your gin.”
Hersh lives in the Southern California desert now. She's the mother of three. She's working on an album full of Appalachian Mountain songs. In the last few years critics have embraced the raucous female rock star. (This is a good thing.) Meanwhile, the Joni Mitchell goddess types — from Sarah McLachlan to Jewel — have become enthusiastically commodified. (This is a, ahh ….) Hersh, who now resides somewhere in between both, deserves the first — and a slice of the cash that comes with commodity wouldn't hurt. Remember, back in the day, Hersh wrote a whole chapter in the history of women in rock in three lines:
I showed this girl my stitches
She said she had some too
She said she thinks she'll start a rock band too.