Short Cuts

Kristin Hersh
Strange Angels
(Rykodisc)

Throwing Muses didn't officially break up until last April, but as early as 1994 the band's uncompromising lead singer and songwriter, Kristin Hersh, was already going her own way. That year she cultivated a haunting, hollow sound on her solo debut, Hips & Makers; four years later, she returns with a decidedly earthy second album, Strange Angels.

Warm, rich, acoustic guitar is the order of the day here, occasionally supplemented with soft bits of cello, piano, and percussion. Hersh plays everything on the record herself, creating pristine settings for her minimalist lyrics and cooing melodies. Hersh is the kind of songwriter who encourages the listener to fill in the blanks: Like psychological word games, the fifteen songs on Strange Angels have no right answer. It all depends on how one interprets the imagery that's strung together.

Hersh certainly pops off some great lines. In "Like You" she politely rails, "Excuse me, a doormat is nice honest work/Only the bored and the wicked rich don't know that." On "Aching for You," she proclaims, "Love is a needle, goes all the way down/I'm always surprised/So shoot me a roll of your best paradise/It's so pretty I just want to die."

The best tracks on the record showcase Hersh's gift for beautifully brutal statements. In "Gut Pageant" she sings, "When we kiss the dirt, the orchids laugh," followed by a chorus of "What a gut pageant, meat for the flowers."

Hersh overreaches her artistic grasp in lines such as "When he drools, it's like he's spitting jewels," and "There are fishes that are stronger than my legs." The record's main weakness, however, is that the songs all sound somewhat the same, despite the interesting guitar work and surreal lyrics. Though Hersh conveys a sense of urgency on many cuts, she never really lets it rip, and some of the more abstract material suffers without a band to provide the bluster she has previously used to convey similarly disjointed emotions.

But Hersh knows that not everyone will get her drift. The album's closing lines seem to sum up her personal war on mediocrity and her willingness to be a martyr for being different. "Acting this way is a craft," she sings. "I'll shut up soon and then we'll go home/Covered in Band-Aids and casts."

-- Robin Myrick

Freakwater
Springtime
(Thrill Jockey)

I recently went to the Salvation Army and bought a portable Motorola Stereophonic record player, the kind with a handle on top and speakers that unfold like wings from the console. I also purchased a stack of 45s, mostly old country titles. Booty in hand, I went to Dunkin' Donuts, where Miss Evelyn, the assistant manager, let me set up the stereo and spin a caffeine-fueled set for the regulars. As I played a string of songs by George Jones, Tammy Wynette, and Charlie Rich, Miss Evelyn mouthed the words and swayed gently behind the counter, while a youngster in a Korn T-shirt looked confused, and a retired trucker claimed to have had an affair with Patsy Cline. The whole scene reminded me of Freakwater's fifth and latest release, Springtime: a genuine slice of torch and twang in a genre that's increasingly sugarcoated and commercial.

Springtime has the energy and feel of classic country music. Over the course of thirteen songs, Catherine Irwin's liquor-lacquered voice breaks majestically over Janet Beveridge Bean's pristine soprano. Behind them, David Gay's bass waltzes with the banjo and mandolin of Max Johnston (of Wilco). On standout tracks such as "Picture in My Mind," "Washed in the Blood," and "One Big Union," Irwin and Bean's dark fatalism and wry humor appropriately match the tear-in-your-beer accompaniment. "Which side are you on's got more angles than the Pentagon," Irwin sings, before concluding: "Even one big union can't help us now."

Such salty sentiments are typical of Irwin, the group's chief lyricist. Like many of her thirtysomething contemporaries, her demons seem more internal than external. Irwin often cites Woody Guthrie and Hazel Dickens as influences, but where they battled floods, dust storms, and coal dust, Irwin is more likely to battle her own apathy and cynicism. Within the parameters of traditional country music, she manages to communicate a personal vision that's humorous, disturbing, and compelling. And I'd bet her world-weary tunes could get even Miss Evelyn swaying behind the counter at Dunkin' Donuts.

-- John Lewis

Joy Division
Heart and Soul
(London)

Joy Division released two full-length albums during its brief, four-year career. Probably no other group in history has produced so little and left such a lasting legacy. The band ceased to exist on May 18, 1980, when its frontman, the visionary but deeply depressed Ian Curtis, hanged himself with a length of clothesline in his home in Macclesfield, England. He was 23. The other bandmembers (Peter Hook on bass, Bernard Sumner on guitar, and Stephen Morris on drums) eventually formed the upbeat and commercially successful New Order. But nothing ensures an artist's immortality better than an early death, and over the past eighteen years, Joy Division has been the subject of two tribute albums, four compilation albums, and several books.

Curtis' stature as the patron saint of gloomy goth kids everywhere guarantees an audience for the new Joy Division box set, Heart and Soul. It contains 80 tracks spread over four discs -- yet it's still not complete. "With a few exceptions," reads the elaborate, rectangular package, "everything Joy Division recorded and released is contained here." Those few exceptions aren't major ones, and the only truly reprehensible omission is the band's grisly cover of "Sister Ray," available on the 1981 compilation Still. But the fact that there is any exception at all makes one wonder if this $67 import is a boon for Joy Division fans or an attempt to make money off them.

Nevertheless, thanks to its sheer scope, Heart and Soul presents a breathtaking, panoramic view of the band. Familiar songs, such as "Love Will Tear Us Apart," the band's only hit single, share disc space with more obscure cuts, such as "Komakino," released on a seven-inch the month before Curtis died. Joy Division always sounded as if it were coming from a point twenty years in the future, and still does. Morris' thin, simple drum patterns (and sparing use of synthesized drum-pads) serve as Joy Division's brittle skeleton. Hook's bass, unusually enough, provides the melodies, while Sumner's guitar adds rhythm, noise, dischord, and harmony. The band's architectural use of space remains unequaled; even the rough version of "Shadowplay" included here is as clean and functional as a Bauhaus high-rise.

Somehow, despite Curtis' hopeless lyrics and unstable voice, Joy Division is as bracing and refreshing as a splash of ice water. Perhaps it's Curtis' straightforward approach to his own emotions. On "Isolation" he states, "Mother, I've tried, please believe me/I'm doing the best that I can/I'm ashamed of the things I've been put through/I'm ashamed of the person I am." Just by straining his voice a notch higher, Curtis can raise goose bumps: The power of "Dead Souls" comes from its chorus, "They keep calling me/They keep calling me." Like Curtis' suicide, these songs make their points with little fuss and great finality.

Fans who want every single memento of Joy Division will need to buy Still and The Peel Sessions to really complete their scrapbooks. But the five hours of music on Heart and Soul are the next best thing to a visit with Joy Division -- and they're over way too soon.

-- Rafer Guzman

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