Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Whatever you feel like playing: 50FOOTWAVE and Bath White

A few weeks ago, Kristin Hersh's 50FOOTWAVE put out a new EP, Bath White.

To throw in a few "I" statements for just a moment -- I've coincidentally spent those last few weeks cuddling up to Hersh's memoir Rat Girl. Admittedly, it had spent more than five years sitting on a shelf; I'd bought it at a reading in 2011 and gotten it signed by Hersh, who made a point of talking to and hugging every single fan in line at Stories in Los Angeles. I'd complimented all the strange songs she'd written and she politely countered the compliment by letting me know that all those strange songs had resulted from playing when she didn't know how to properly play. Then she gave me a hug.

For those who haven't read it, Rat Girl is actually quite a fantastic story that grows more and more personal as it goes on, and is based on an eventful year of journal entries in which Hersh recalls her friendship with actress Betty Hutton, moving from Providence to Boston, being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, getting pregnant, and getting Throwing Muses signed with 4AD. She had a rather incredible 1986.

When Hersh writes about her musical process, or the experience of playing with Throwing Muses, she downplays nearly everything about her talent and her work. She calls the teenage version of herself a reluctant performer, comments on the way she stares into the crowd, her inability to sing prettily. Says that Throwing Muses sounds "sorta painful and a little out of control," and "too up our own asses to be marketed nationally." But all of this is what Throwing Muses is and was at their best -- guitars and bass winding around each other, time signature changes, the bizarre dichotomy between Hersh's confrontational voice and Tanya Donelly's sweet coo. The stare, that lack of control, the unwillingness to become marketable.

One of the things that's always set Hersh's songwriting apart is her unconventional melodies. In Rat Girl, she blames this on the double concussion she'd sustained as a teenager, which caused her to hear music that she couldn't get rid of until it was down on paper and had become a song, given life. Some of the snaking guitar and antagonistic drumming patterns that Throwing Muses offered can be heard on 50FOOTWAVE's Bath White, particularly on "St. Christopher" and "Sun Salute," which remind somewhat of Muses songs like "Garoux des Larmes" or "Mercury." 

But 50FOOTWAVE is and has been a more muscular, much tougher project than Hersh's work with Throwing Muses, and the potential downside to this is perhaps that it's easier for the band's work to hit a point at which it sounds dated, as some of Hersh's material from the last decade fits somewhere between early '90s alt-rock and late '90s hard rock. This is true of some of their earlier work, as well as songs like Bath White's title track, and it's hard to say whether it will hold up the way some of Throwing Muses' work did, particularly since we're still in a bit of a '90s revival and anything is possible at present [The EP's producer previously worked with bands like Godsmack and Powerman 5000, who I don't believe are part of this revival.] Maybe the ballsiness stems from 50FOOTWAVE being an L.A. band rather than a Providence- or Boston-based group. We're ballsy here, maybe. 

But it's fantastic to see a Kristin Hersh who has grown into an older version of her younger self, rather than an entirely new musician over the span of thirty years. That she hasn't molded her throaty voice, tamed the music in her head or forced the music to rebel against it, is a relief to those of us who keep hoping for reasons to retain our loyalty.

Purchase the Bath White EP here.

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