Kristin Hersh could never be described as conventional. From her early days with Throwing Muses, Hersh’s style has been marked by a scathing intensity and often painfully honest manner that marked her about as far from an easy-listening ghetto as it’s possible to be.
Hersh’s latest project continues this trajectory. Power+Light is not an album, nor a conventional single: instead, it’s one, long 25 minute track, divided into seven separate ‘movements’, available either as a free MP3 download or as a limited edition vinyl edition. The idea of a song being divided into separate movements may strike cautious notes of prog-rock style self-indulgence, but this is actually the most exhilarating thing that Hersh has done in years and, given her back catalogue and superb forthcoming solo album Speedbath, that’s saying something.
While her solo material was always required listening, the very special chemistry that seems to be conjured up when she joins forces with Muses bassist Bernard Georges is no less essential. Joined in 50 Foot Wave by drummer Rob Ahlers, the trio can create music which is by turns disturbing, exhilarating and poignant.
Power+Light starts off calmly, with George’s elastic bass introducing Medicine Rush, before Hersh’s throaty vocal kicks in: “Behind the liquor store, I break down”. Hersh’s lyrics are as oblique as ever, but throughout Power+Light you’re aware that all is not well, with mention of “hearts thrust into heartbreak soup” and “these fucked up bedtime stories”.
It’s with the second ‘movement’ of Power+Light, Honeysuckle, that the track really gets off the ground, featuring coruscating guitars, Hersh wailing that she’d “rather be fucking than fighting – anyway, they’re the same” and the most ferocious pounding of a drum kit since Dave Grohl’s days with Nirvana. The title track piles on the intensity, with a buzzsaw guitar riff doing battle with Georges and Ahler’s rhythm section. The result is absolutely exhilarating.
Every so often, the tempo drops to highlight Victor Lawrence’s beautiful cello playing, the calmness playing off nicely against the previous chaos and noise. Hersh sounds almost broken at times, her voice becoming ever more croaky as the maelstrom of guitars whirls around her.
The second half of Power+Light builds up a similar head of steam to the first half, leading to the stunning climax of Wax, which features squalls of feedback and ever more violent drumming while Hersh screams “heads roll and heads roll”, before dropping the tempo again for the track’s coda, Sun Dog Coma, which ends proceedings with yet another virtuoso display from Rob Ahlers – surely one of the most under-rated drummers of recent times.
Power+Light will not appeal to the Playlist Generation for obvious reasons – this is a piece of music to set aside half an hour for, to put headphones on and lose yourself completely. It is, in a word, brilliant and confirms Kristin Hersh yet again as one of the foremost talents of her generation.