Kristin Hersh’s compositions, while musically and lyrically complex, have long been marked by a simple prettiness; her unapologetically raspy voice can fluidly traverse moods, from weary to playful to furious. Hersh’s sixth solo album (she was first known as leader of the Throwing Muses), recorded while she was pregnant with her fourth son, finds her returning to the sound that characterized her earlier solo releases. 1994’s Hips and Makers, released in 1994, and Strange Angels, released in 1998, were acoustic affairs that managed to balance intimacy and catchiness. Sky Motel, released in 1999, was a departure from this style; it played more like a Throwing Muses or Breeders record than any of Hersh’s earlier solo albums. 2001’s Sunny Border Blue combined these two distinct sounds, thus providing an interesting encapsulation of Hersh’s work up until that point.
The Grotto‘s minimalist album artwork appropriately represents this album’s stripped-down sound. While the generally soft, slow and spooky tracks collected here lack the hooks found on Strange Angels and Sunny Border Blue, the respective piano and violin contributions by Howe Gelb (Giant Sand) and Andrew Bird (Bowl of Fire, Squirrel Nut Zippers) nicely accent this group of songs and, in some places, save the cohesiveness of this album from slipping into sameness.
“Sno Cat,” the album’s opener, is spare and reflective, lacking a chorus, with Hersh singing: “I thank God you’re comatose/as I pull back the bedclothes/and I can’t believe my composure/and I can’t remember my anger.” “Snake Oil” and “Vitamins V” sound fuller, featuring more textured guitar work. The album’s standout track, “Arnica Montana,” with its low-down piano underpinnings and high sweeping violin line, showcases the easy grace and originality that are hallmarks of Hersh’s solo work. Bird’s violin adds an especially somber elegance to “Deep Wilson” and “Ether.” The latter track ends the album without any literal resolution, Hersh’s voice on the upswing.