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Tensile, Elemental, Crucial – 50 Foot Wave’s “Bath White”

50 Foot Wave
Bath White
HHBTM Records

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“I think she’s one of our most important songwriters.” So said I to my then-girlfriend in 1986 as the Kristin Hersh-led Throwing Muses eponymous major label debut (on 4AD) was playing for the second time in a row. There was something brutally necessary in her work, a naked emotional honesty as sharp, prismatic, and beautiful as cut glass (my god “Vicky’s Box”? “Hate My Way”? – my god), presented with a level of musicality that seemed to have been born fully matured. As much, and quite possibly more so, than anyone that’s ever inspired such a pronouncement, nothing in her subsequent work – eight Muses full-lengths, just as many solo records and many etc’s – has led me for one second to reconsider, and Bath White by her power outlet 50 Foot Wave, released May 27th on HHBTM Records and only recently unearthed out of my inbox (mea culpa) only strengthens that claim made thirty years ago during one of this writer’s few verifiable moments of utter clarity.

Intended as an outlet for Hersh’s thrashier mathy-er impulses – see 2009’s astutely named Power + Light for that intention’s most unflinching expression – this release, while wild and willful and careening in its way, finds the band (Hersh and bassist Bernard Georges from Throwing Muses with Rob Ahlers on drums), dialing back the scorch a tad to a point that more approximates those moments of swaying vehemence familiar to fans of the parent band. Hence the title track, opening the record, stalks a reflective ground for a couple of measures, a stately reserve to the electric strum, the bass weaving barefoot into the mix, Hersh’s vocal its usual temperate waver that somehow manages to sound both ready to break and ready to rage before the band, pausing for a beat, unties the lashings and sets out for the visceral, a state of excoriating grace that hurtles forward with what might be called a seething restraint, a phrase that could duly apply to not only Bath White‘s overarching approach but arguably Ms Hersh’s cornerstone aesthetic, from which comes the emotional tension we’ve been irresistibly responding to now since the days of the Commodore computer. That yin-yang push-pull, formidable and always present, is as evident here as we’ve ever heard it.


[photo: Lisa Fletcher]

From the lurching skulk of “God’s Not A Dick” to “Human” (seems about time she carved a song title down to its simplest essence) that starts life as a chopped shuffle before becoming the record’s most breakneck outing, the frantic racing the desperate, to “St Christopher” that, while running a close second to “Human” in the adrenaline stakes, finds itself haunted by a somewhat ominous tone despite its trampling pace, and “Sun Salute”‘s intricately busy assault – interspersed, of course, by an almost, umm, sunny respite attended by a popsike chime – Bath White, seeming both concise and unshackled, as polished as it is feral, (not a little credit here goes to producer Mudrock), puts one in thrall to exactly that base dynamic, tensile, elemental, crucial.

Kristin Hersh has never been shy about struggling to face down her – and by extension everyone’s – flaws and weaknesses (the “Bath White” line ‘I don’t recognize depression‘ is either wry irony of openly declared defiance or, one assumes, both) and indeed it’s the confronting of her vulnerability that’s at the heart of the exhilaration we’ve long expected of her work. That 50 Foot Wave’s splintered edges have been sanded down a millimeter or two this time around has not diminished the power inherent a bit and in fact likely heightens it. I may have still been a young(ish) wide-eyed enthusiast of thirty when I made that statement in 1986 but the old(er) wide-eyed enthusiast I am today still believes it. She’s one of our most important songwriters.