Kristin Hersh - The Grotto

4AD CAD 2302 CD, released 17 March 2003

Kristin Hersh, has in one form or another, inspired many a generation of music fans with her often complex lyrical wordplay, whether rocking out in her band, Throwing Muses, or since 1994, releasing solo albums with a mainly acoustic nature. Her first solo album "Hips and Makers" was intense and emotional, and had the added selling point of REM's Michael Stipe on the song "Your Ghost" while her 2001 release "Sunny Border Blue" resulted in a very angry electric Kristin, perhaps most personified by the opening and closing tracks "Your Dirty Answer" and "Listerine". It takes some doing to release a new album by Throwing Muses and Kristin solo on the same day, but that's what's happened.

I should note the packaging of The Grotto, it's really nice and shows what being on a good indie label like 4AD is really about. The CD folds out tri-fold, with the CD in the middle. The track listing is on the CD spine, handy if you want to look at it on your shelves of CDs without pulling it out I guess. The artwork is also pretty striking with its internal light coloured art contrasting with its dark exterior.

But enough about that. What really matters is the music, and it's here where Kristin really delivers. With able assistance from Howe Gelb on piano and Andrew Bird on violin, this album is on the whole pretty sparse in terms of there isn't much going on, mainly either Kristin singing with guitar and the piano or violin offering occasional accompaniment. But therein also lies the beauty of it, in that it's simple yet also really intense at the same time. There's all the complex lyrical wordplay going on in your head while at the same time marvelling at the sheer plucked strings from Kristin's guitar, or the gentle lilting piano that Howe offers. In short, it's majestic.

The opener, Sno-Cat, gives you a taste of what is to come. In the main annotated by four bars of guitar with the lyrics referring (it seems) to a cold winter driving around in a snow cat type vehicle, and how cold it feels throughout. By the end piano you really feel the emotion inside the song and it gives you hope by asking where the summer fish story will be. Then there is Deep Wilson, beatifully showing that the use of violin does work if used in the right way, with it provding substance for the song throughout. It's really sad and upsetting at the same time though, with almost the upset and hate writhing within: "Knees pressed against the leather couch, I couldn't find my bra", she sings with aplomb.

Snake Oil has a most wonderful use of one of Kristin's guitar slides that really puts the cherry on top of this wistful song, but for me personally the best track of the album (and if 4AD did singles, they'd really be urged to pick this one) is next. Vanishing Twin could be seen as many things, but I'm not sure what yet. The off kilter piano solo sets things off in a different direction, then the guitar comes in and keeps the melody simple yet succinct and draws you in to every verse. "Your reputation lives in spite of me", and "That's the way the cookie bounces in spite of me" gives you the idea of the self-depreciation that gently sets the song in the tone. Just before the last verse the piano joins in the guitar in an instrumental break and really sends shivers down the spine along the way. Very very nice.

SRB really is deep and darkened at the same time, dealing with abuse by the sound of it. The opening lyric of "Head first into the headboard, I'm shatter proof" seems to set the scene for what is to come, and how you're almost reduced to a raspy whispered plan to try and escape. It's really tough listening but worth persevering for the way that in between the verse the guitar really just flows along and gives the song space to breathe which it needs. Silver Sun is pretty good, the slide at the start reminds me of the Pixies' album track "Silver" for some strange reason, it has that same feel of wishing for something. The sound of a creaking door in the background gives it that old age Western feel and really gives it that little bit extra.

Vitamins V, as well as the longest track, is really deep territory, as well as Kristin's voice almost gently breaking away on occasions which adds to the desperation of the whole piece, summised perfectly by the chorus "This lukewarm catastrophe is a recipe for rebirth, or so I overheard" followed by a very angry Kristin and an intense guitar almost giving out the other way as she almost spits out "I won't waste your time with lies". Arnica Montana on the other hand is a look back at younger days : "We've done our time on the pressure cooker at Arnica Montana" is accompanied by the violin and guitar and sounds rather like it would come from the closing song of a musical: such is its surprise.

Milk Street is very lyrically sparse, but at the same time this allows for the melody to really flow, and on this song it certainly does. It has space to breathe at the start before the change of pace which takes you a little by surprise, then back to slow again. The final track Ether is emotional to say the least, not just because it's almost thinking that you want to be somewhere else. "I want that... so I pray to the ether" she exclaims, and later its added by its chorus of "I ache for the past, like a baby". The violin comes into its own on this one, and to end everything Kristin just asks "who knows what you have seen?"

Summing up this album is difficult. Possibly because unless you're Kristin yourself or really know what the songs mean, it's hard to appreciate the intensity of the whole thing for what it really is. However, that's the deep root. At the heart of it all is a meisterwerk in the making with an intertwining of violin, guitars and piano that made Hips and Makers so lovely, but it furthers this on The Grotto by also giving the instruments added depth and dimension which really make everything come together. To get the best out of it, put the CD in, turn of all the lights in your house, turn the dimmer off on the CD player and amplifier if you can, and listen to it in utter blackness of night (around midnight should do it). It's nothing short of superb, and already has to be a contender for my album of 2003. Go to the shops and buy it - NOW.

The Grotto should be available in all good record shops, but if you want to buy it online, order it from the nice folks at Play or from 4AD directly where the very lovely Jo will look after the order for you :)

Warren's rating: 95%