Kristin Hersh - Learn To Sing Like A Star

4AD CAD 2702 CD, released 29 January 2007

It's been close on four years between Kristin Hersh's last solo album, the beautifully dark and intense "The Grotto" (my favourite album of 2003 no less) and whilst that may have sounded a long gap, bearing in mind there's been her recent 50 Foot Wave project keeping her going and all of a sudden it doesn't actually sound that long. And I'd much rather an artist concentrate on their work and not release it until they're really happy with it, meaning better quality for all of us.

To say this album is a contrast in sorts from The Grotto is an understatement, yet only proves exactly why Kristin is still one the most under-rated female indie rock icons of this generation. Her ability to vary but yet keep her own styles intact in her music is something that people don't often possess, never mind are able to carry off with such aplomb. Album opener and single "In Shock" proves exactly that, sounding rockier yet luscious at the same time. David Narcizo's drums simply augment the whole thing, and the first of many subtle string arrangements by the McCarricks simply set the background, with Kristin sounding especially husky during the verses, and the chorus backing of the strings just set things off the right way. In fact, almost too well!

"Nerve Endings" simply has a beautiful guitar which slides along with real passionate feeling, but never over the top. "Put a rock into my brain / I feel almost everything" she laments as one of many themes about personality and personality complexes spring to mind. It's almost confessional, but never over-done. "Day Glo" just sounds controlled yet furious, angst-ridden yet angry, and all at the same time as the song builds up in crescendo with the line "Getting up is what hurts". The way it builds up, quietens down and then builds up again really just accentuates the whole anger feeling. There then follows the first of three instrumental pieces on the album, "Christian Hearse" (work it out) which break down the album almost into four small parts. Lovely guitars here albeit very short.

"Ice" has some wonderfully lovely strings mellowing with the acoustic guitar, and its somewhat gentle chorus just flows effortlessly with all the parts together, and with some wonderfully thoughtful insights: "how do you spell that with vowels?" she asks. Next is "Under The Gun" which is one of my favourites as it has all the qualities of classic indie rock, the quiet bit, and then the loud bit as the infectiously catchy chorus kicks in. And as the electric guitars really kick in later on, it just sounds so loose and raw inside that you can't help but be addicted to it. And even a moment of warm humour as she cries "The lizard looking up at me is go goddamn Disney" in such a dry and deadpan way. "Piano 1" is the first of two piano-led pieces, which reminds me somewhat of "Hello" and "Goodbye" on The Durutti Column's "Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say" EP because of the rawness and the emotion of of the piece while being played with such feeling.

"Sugar Baby" is such a contrasting track because of the acoustic strumming of the opening breaks give way to some effects laden electric guitar and then back again, a contrast of personality and styles keeping in with the album's theme. "You're a sight", she explains, "You look like someone dressed as you". Dysfunctional yes, but also a surprising contrast too. "Peggy Lee" has that feel of something accelerated to sound better faster, and it does, on the whole. Especially as the electric guitar kick in on certain riffs and make the whole track sound just that little bit dirtier yet gives way to some lovely acoustic breaks here as well. There follows "Piano 2" which is the last instrumental but breaks things down a notch - and despite the title there isn't actually any piano audible till right near the end. Such a paradox!

"Vertigo" is the best track on the album. It represents everything good and wonderful about Kristin Hersh in one four minute burst. You've got the gorgeous acoustic guitar, you've got the strings, you've got the gradual build up of the drums coming in and the whole song gets drawn into a more beat-driven territory as it progresses, before all the parts come crashing in together with such flawless timing and melody that you can't help to be impressed. And the acoustic guitars here are just so beautiful, gorgeous and luscious that it makes you almost forget the lyrical complexity: "Isn't this vertigo? Isn't this wonderful"? she asks you. And yes, it is. "Winter" almost seems a let down after that, although the strings are cranked up to the fore here and really set in tone with Kristin's voice and has some almost poetic romance about it: "So lonely, hold me till sunrise" she begs of you.

"Wild Vanilla" is a song that's just so.. well, funkier sounding that it gives you that warm glow inside as you listen. The guitars and drums work so well together and really give you that feeling of bounciness, and then when that electric guitar kicks in, it just sounds more pop-like. It also has a real admissive lyric that "you make the gypsy in me horny for a flower garden" before the electrics kick in and deliver a long, slow, gorgeous fade, almost apologetic. "The Thin Man" is a wonderful album closer though, it's a slow burner and has fuses instruments sounding backwards, a punctuated rhythm and the huskiest sounding Kristin here. "Did you break a promise half asleep" she proclaims as the crescendo builds up dramatically, the drums get louder and distorted and the background hum just grows. It just works and shows an artist at her complete comfortable self.

And before you know it, that's it. It certainly is one of those albums that immerses you in its simplicity and beauty and refuses to let you go until you listen. All the ingredients are there, and while some fans may see this as a different departure, I only hope fans of real music get on this platform and take a ride into the kooky, self confessional, mysterious world of Kristin Hersh. Whilst not quite up there with her very best, it nonetheless would make a good introduction to what she's all about and with the return of David Narcizo on drums, a real warm sounding album that is set to be listened to for many a winter's night here:

Warren's rating: 85%