Kristin Hersh

Most of my posts — Jesus, I don’t post often enough, what’s wrong with me — are titled according to the form ‘[Name of artist] and [abstract noun]’. This is because, like a good critic, I like to use the artists I’m writing about as pretexts to discussing whatever else I want to discuss. However, sometimes I just want to praise people like I should.

I came back from holiday last month having started to read Kristin Hersh’s memoir Paradoxical Undressing (published in the USA as Rat Girl, a less interesting title, in my view, but then the difference between the ways in which the UK has received KH’s music and the ways in which the USA has received it is enough for an article in itself.) Okay, I’ll review it another time, but in short: I loved it. I hadn’t listened to KH’s music for a while but the first Throwing Muses album, plus their second EP Chains Changed, are installed permanently on my iPod. Reading her book reminded me of those two crappy springs in 1988/89 when I didn’t study enough and failed to get a free place in university, partly because I spent all my time listening to the radio, including songs from the Muses’ third LP Hunkpapa, the one on which they began to bow to industry pressure and try to bend their music to fit what the industry wanted.

Before I go any further, I come to praise Kristin Hersh, and Tanya Donelly, and Leslie Langston, and Bernard Georges, and David Narcizo. Hersh in particular, because she writes most of the songs. Having finished Paradoxical Undressing I went back to the Throwing Muses stuff that I had (basically, the first album and Chains Changed, plus Hersh’s solo debut Hips and Makers, what, I’m crap, I failed to keep up) and was reminded again just how great a band they were/are, and how remarkable a musician Hersh is. I’ve since gone out and a clutch more Muses albums — Hunkpapa, House Tornado and last year’s Purgatory Paradise — and Hersh’s most recent solo album Crooked.

Nobody else writes songs like hers, apart perhaps from Tanya Donelly, which is just to say that — at least when Donelly was in the Muses — they wrote a bit like each other. The moment when I got definitively lost inside a Muses song was ‘Finished’, from Chains Changed. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ngnmPEGIfxg To this day, I’m not entirely sure what the words of ‘Finished’ are, but what got me is the song’s relentless, hammering weight; it rolls over you and stamps on you and just when you think you’ve had enough, it turns on itself (‘Hope this dog don’t / spin me round again . . .’) and starts biting its own neck. It helps that Chains Changed is one of the few early Muses recordings that captures the band’s mass and heft. (It took a stupidly long time for bands led by women to be recorded with the same level of care and attention and bands led by men, as anyone who’s got the Fanny boxed set can confirm.) ‘Finished’ is followed by ‘Reel’, which is just as ravishing but in the opposite way; ‘Finished’ throws you down on the ground, ‘Reel’ catches you up in its whirl.

It’s a mystery why this band, and Hersh, haven’t had the respect that they deserve, not that they haven’t had a lot. Well, of course, it isn’t a mystery at all: female rock musicians are not as feted as male ones, or when they are, it’s in specific ways that have to do with the extent to which they provoke certain conversations about femininity. Hersh has said that ‘People don’t treat me particularly female’ and Throwing Muses never traded on their collective cuteness. Hersh says in Paradoxical Undressing that she thought of the band as being like ‘spinach’, which is to say ‘ragged and bitter’ but ‘good for you’. I’m not sure of that as a description; I happen to like spinach, but unless you dress spinach up with things like parmesan cheese which immediately make it slightly less good for you, it’s not very sensuous, whereas there is something sensuous about the way Throwing Muses knock the listener about. (If there is an 80s alternative rock band that resembled spinach in the senses of being virtuous, healthy, at best quietly uplifting and at worst dull, it’s 10,000 Maniacs.)

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Kristin Hersh

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