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50 Foot Wave
Black Pearl Sean Kitching , April 21st, 2022 08:01

Nearly twenty-five albums in and Kristin Hersh is still delivering rock-solid gold, finds Sean Kitching

Since forming Throwing Muses with her stepsister, Tanya Donnelly, in 1981, Kristin Hersh has released consistently high-quality work that continues to outshine that of many of her contemporaries. Ten studio albums with Throwing Muses, eleven solo albums, and now a second full-length with her power trio, 50 Foot Wave. As far as the calibre of her more recent releases, tQ’s John Doran was spot on when he wrote in 2019: “I can hand on heart say she’s producing some of the best work of her career right now, without having to cross my fingers behind my back like I might have to were I talking about some of her male peers.”

Hersh’s music predates the ubiquity of the term ‘alternative rock’ (a label she found bemusing at the time, as recalled in her 2010 memoir of her early days as a musician, Rat Girl), and yet also remains perpetually ripe for discovery by successive new generations of music fans. Simply stated, we are lucky she is still making music as beguiling as this, and such good fortune is further borne out by 50 Foot Wave’s new release, Black Pearl.

The notion that 50 Foot Wave exists as a channel for music deemed ‘too weird’ for Throwing Muses is one that persists in writing about them, but is really rather misleading. 2020’s Sun Racket deployed a similarly rough-edged sound and largely mid-tempo songs, but Black Pearl ratchets up the noise element a little further, creating a hazy, heat-saturated and impressionistic sound world that is aptly expressed in the album’s cover with its lush vegetation encircling the sky as the sun begins to rise.

Opening track, ‘Staring at the Sun’, sets this tone from the onset: droning guitar fuzz rising from the song’s bare bones like shimmering heat waves turning the landscape to liquid at its edges, naturalistic imagery bleeding into hallucinatory territory. ‘Hog Child’ ambles slowly, as if weighted down and progressing painfully but possessed by an unwavering sense of persistence. Painterly smudges of guitar spiral out from this sense of overburdened intensity, hinting at the possibility of joy and freedom from out of an oppressive reality. It’s the kind of simple, but hugely effective in-full-view conjuror’s trick this album excels in.

‘Fly Down South’ ups the tempo until its final third, which dissipates beautifully as if becoming unwound into individual threads. ‘Black Pearl’ is a gorgeous, understated instrumental interlude, with carefully sculpted guitar distortion resonating out into the atmosphere amid skeletal drumbeats and heartbeat-like bass. ‘Broken Sugar’ adds some subtle touches into the mix, voices just at the edge of audible perception, a laugh becoming a sound like some exotic bird, the drums hitting the kind of offbeat loping stride more usually found on Throwing Muses recordings. ‘Blush’ and ‘Double Barrel’ further perpetuate the album’s feeling of movement persisting against a prevailing inertia or near suffocating humidity.

Really though, this album is too much of a piece to be picking out favourites, yet it is also one whose subtleties really reveal themselves on subsequent listens. Go on, dive in. Soak up the heat, discover what’s hidden underneath the overgrown foliage. You know you want to.