It certainly seems as if Kristin Hersh is exploring the idea of extremes this year. As well as the reformed Throwing Muses album (released on the same day as this), she’s also released her sixth solo album. According to Hersh they’re both linked as they were both recorded during the same year in Rhode Island. That’s about as far as the similarity goes though.
Where the Muses is noisy and uncompromising, The Grotto is hushed and quiet with a deep sense of melancholy hanging over it. In fact, Hersh seems to have returned to the sound of her debut solo album Hips And Makers. Where later material such as Sky Motel and Sunny Border Blue showcased electric guitars, The Grotto sees Hersh’s voice accompanied by a plucked acoustic guitar, a piano and occasionally a violin.
The advantage of such a set up, besides the sheer beauty of some of the tracks on here, is that Hersh’s extraordinary voice is shown off to its very best effect. It’s the sort of voice that can produce all kinds of emotion, from despair to wonderment and these songs are its perfect vehicle. The sparseness of the backing also lets us hear Hersh’s lyrics, which is a blessing as they’re as fascinating as you’d expect.
For instance the opening line of the first track Sno Cat – “a man made of butterfat/careening around on a sno cat” – manages to conjure up an image from just two lines. It’s a talented songwriter who can manage that, and Hersh does it time and time again on The Grotto. Her well publicised troubles seem close to the surface as well – SRB begins with “headfirst into the headboard, I’m shatterproof”, and perhaps most evocatively of all, Vitamins V tells us “I’m staring into the fishtank, my fist full of valium”.
Although the stories behind the lyrics come from mundane times (Sno Cat is about Hersh out driving late at night after an argument with her husband), some of the imagery becomes quite sad and dark. Lines such as “aching for children you’ve never seen, it’s a tragedy” and “I hate clever sons of bitches who won’t leave a girl alone/to rot in peace” indicate that the angst that’s become her trademark still resides inside her.
If this sounds like an acquired taste, well it probably is. The bleakness and stripped down sound of The Grotto means that it probably isn’t the best album for the uninitiated to become acquainted with Hersh. Some songs mesh into each other, due to the similarity of the arrangements, and none of these tracks will be featured on the latest party compilation. However, if you’re a fan of the unique talent that is Kristin Hersh, this melancholy, wistful album will soon become like an old friend.