Learn to Sing Like A Star, the latest solo album from Kristin Hersh, arrives like an old friend you haven’t seen in a while: older and evolved in many respects, but essentially familiar and welcomely so. The kind of relationship where you have little problem picking up where you left off.
As you listen you’re aware that her voice has developed an increasingly raspy edge, but is it any wonder that it’s showing signs of wear given just how many pies, musically speaking, Hersh has had her fingers in over her 20-year career. Co-founder of the Throwing Muses, she continues to intersperse her solo albums with recording and touring for new band 50 Foot Wave, a punky three-piece, the darkness to often etheral lightness of her solo career.
Her solo work tends to fall in two camps as well, divided between the minimal folky aesthetic of her debut Hips And Makers and the more recent Grotto, and the more heavily produced sound of Sky Motel and the perfectly executed Sunny Border Blue. This new offering veers towards the latter camp. It’s not as pared down as Grotto, peppered instead with strings and the occasional driving drum beat (as on Winter, one of the album’s more dramatic tracks, which boasts the superb lyrical flourish: “winter wears high heels.”)
While her musical output speaks of different voices, different impulses, pulling her this way and that, her lyrics remain a consistent thread: honest, painful and playful; sometimes impentrable, often very funny. “Nervous energy keeps us busy” she sings on Ice and on Nerve Endings she pleads thst someone should put “a rock in my brain/ I feel almost everything.” A melancholic air underscores most of the songs here, even more superficially catchy tracks like Under The Gun have this quality with talk of troubled lives (and trippy lizards that are “so goddamned Disney”).
Hersh plays all the instruments on the album (bar the drums, provided by long-term collaborator David Narcizo, and the occasional sprinkling of strings); she supplies the pounding piano on opening track In Shock and the echoey atmospheric guitar on Ice. What often gets lost admist talk of her unique career, is what a superb and skilled musician she is. While her material may track over familar ground, her songs are never repetitive, her music always feels fresh in a way that is not always the case with artists whose careers are half or even quarter of the length of hers. There’s a fountain of creativity within her that shows no signs of drying up any time soon.
Learn To Sing Like A Star (the title is borrowed from the subject line of a spam email Hersh kept receiving) has a few more rough edges than Sunny Border Blue, but it’s a rich and rewarding album from an artist who – thankfully – keeps on evolving in subtle and exciting ways.