Category Archives: FEATURES

Hal Willner And Lou Reed: Making Legacy Live On

Hal Willner’s Lou Reed (or Lou Reed’s Hal Willner)

Mention to Hal Willner that he’s a sort of keeper of the flame, and he grumbles. The producer has, since 1981, been an all-around music boss at Saturday Night Live as its sketch-music adaptor, coordinator and composer. Around this same time, he began to create and curate smart tribute albums to the esteemed likes of Nino Rota, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Kurt Weill and other genre-busting geniuses who forged a blueprint for the art form. Willner also created sonic sound beds for Beat Generation literary godfathers William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and their beatnik comic cousin Lenny Bruce.

“No, they don’t need me to do anything with their flames,” says Willner. “I am happily associated with Bruce and the Beats and am always available to that crowd,” pointing to the 2016 Burroughs-released work Let Me Hang You.
When it comes to the late, great Lou Reed, however, Willner is happy to carry a torch.

Reed’s last producer—“in a humbling list of illustrious names: Bob Ezrin, Tom Wilson, David Bowie, Mick Ronson, Richard Robinson, to say nothing of the guy who painted the banana,” he laughs, considering Velvet Underground associate Andy Warhol—is proud of tackling 2000’s Ecstasy, 2003’s The Raven and all original work and Reed compilations until his death in 2013. Their newest (but not last) collaborative production is the recently released The RCA & Arista Album Collection, which captures Reed fresh from leaving the Velvets up through depressive art rock (Berlin, Street Hassle), glam (Transformer), showy, silly soul (Sally Can’t Dance), swishy folk (Coney Island Baby), noise (Metal Machine Music) and more.

“It is a mammoth catalog that you think you know until you dig into it,” says Willner, mentioning how he and Laurie Anderson, Reed’s widow, separated out Reed love songs for the early summer 2016 all-Reed spectacular outside of Lincoln Center, where a “misty rain never felt so mesmerizing.” To quote Donald Trump, says Willner, “This is huge.”

Willner first worked with the daring ex-Velvet on 1985’s Lost In The Stars: The Music Of Kurt Weill, with the guitarist/singer morphing the German theater composer’s most plaintive ballad, “September Song,” into an era-appropriate Reed rocker. “I had the first Velvets album, Berlin and Transformer but didn’t cling to everything Reed did,” says Willner. “Rock got stale for me by 1975, so I moved to NYC to become a jazz producer because of the innovative work of Sun Ra and such. By the ’80s, however, jazz got stale, and I drifted back to rock.” And Reed.

“Lou wasn’t told to have a producer like most artists are by the label, he chose to,” says Willner. “He wanted another voice—a buddy, a partner—and that other voice happened to be mine. I’m also not just a record producer but rather an all-around collaborator, a one-stop shop. But with him, you came ready to work. He taught me to focus, really focus. You did your job. Bear with him. Listen hard, then harder. Follow his lead and call the shots when they needed to be called.”

The same was even truer when it came to The RCA & Arista Album Collection. According to Willner, Reed knew he was “obviously” dying, as did those close to him (“We all lived in denial,” says Willner) and wanted this re-breathing of his ’70s and ’80s catalog to be brilliant, a true last will and testament to his powers as a poet guitarist and sonic elocutionist. “It was amazing watching and listening to him pointing to what needed to be enhanced and what to be left alone,” says Willner.

According to Willner, the new boxed set is not “remixed” but rather reconsidered for Blu-ray sound. With that, Reed could realize that which had long been stuck in his head, like the dynamic effect of binaural sound that was Street Hassle (“his headphone album”) or to bring out the nuanced background vocals of that same album’s “I Wanna Be Black” and the Bowie/Ronson harmonies of Transformer. “Lou really marveled at their vocal lines and wanted their dimensions to sound greater,” says Willner. “He relived everyone’s contributions to his work.”

With that, Willner sees The RCA & Arista Album Collection as a gift to rock, jazz, poetry, punk, noise and pop—like Miles Davis, an ever-shifting palette of sounds that had peaks and valleys, but always made the music his own and changed the culture.

“To go from the Velvets to Metal Machine Music—all before 1975 and often with great criticism —is something to behold,” says Willner. “Lou Reed changed the game and often.”

—A.D. Amorosi

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Ennio Morricone: A Fistful Of Dynamite

Legendary composer Ennio Morricone returns with the bold Morricone 60

From his roots in the avant-garde scene of his native Italy to the nouvelle, nontraditional symphony he composed for his most famous recent film score for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, composer, orchestrator and conductor Ennio Morricone loves to experiment.

These testing grounds might not include the early fuzz-tones, primitive rhythms, oddly tuned chorales or nature’s roars as did his earliest works. At the request of Italian “spaghetti-Western” (yes, Morricone supposedly loathes the phrase) director Sergio Leone, the composer engaged audiences with dusty, prickly scores for modern horse operas such as 1964’s A Fistful Of Dollars, 1965’s For A Few Dollars More, 1966’s The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and 1968’s Once Upon A Time In The West. Still, experimenting is his right and duty, even now as he manipulates the contours, luster and grand sweep of his best-known cinematic moments on his new album, Morricone 60, meant to signal both 600 compositions and 60 years in the biz.

“It is always difficult thinking about composing for a film while at the same time trying to find a compromise between that which can be, something that must be and something that should be understood and felt by an audience,” says the 88-year-old Italian known as “Il Maestro” through an interpreter from his apartment in Rome, his longtime home. Considering notions of experimentation, Morricone—who started out as a trumpeter along with spending time in Italy’s premier conceptual ensemble, Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza—remarks that he’s always looking to turn sound on its head. “I compose a piece of music that is interesting to me, that is relevant, contemporary and challenging because I do not wish to bore my audience,” he says. “Or me, for that matter. I want to feed my audience music that has dignity.”

And for the record, “No, I have not played the trumpet in nearly 50 years,” he laughs.

Talking about his initial, often dissonant influences in 20th-century composers Boulez, Stockhausen and Luigi Nono and the use of the “sounds of reality” to give his “instrumental music meaning,” that forum had to find its own form, its own shape, in his recollection. “Which was imminent; not all contemporary music had this, the sounds of reality, at the time,” he says. “But I used this to make a point, a sort of short circuit.”

Hence, the sweeping orchestration and noisy elements of scores for Leone, his baroque “giallo” (horror) for Dario Argento and Alberto De Martino; then a run of internationally famed directors from Bernardo Bertolucci, Lina Wertmüller and Pedro Almodóvar to Hollywood-Americans such as Brian De Palma, Mike Nichols, Barry Levinson, Warren Beatty and Oliver Stone.

Ask if he has heard or felt a difference in what he has written for Hollywood (he never even thought about moving to America, let alone learning to speak the language) as opposed to Mediterranean or European directors, he claims he never noticed. “It was always up to me to propose that which would solve a problem; that would fit a mood, a scene,” he says. “There are so many options. That is why it is difficult to strike the perfect balance no matter who the director is or where he is from.” More important for Morricone is that the music he’s composed—past or present such as those for new films (A Rose In Winter, La Corrispondenza) or those in pre-production (Aline & Wolfe)—must be able to exist outside the realm of cinema. “From the very beginning of the process, when I start writing a composition for a film, I write all music as independent and stand alone. If the music is audacious and powerful enough for a film, it must also have a life free from its images.”

This is why Morricone 60, recorded anew with longtime collaborators the Czech National Orchestra, is so powerful. Not because they conjure images of boots of Spanish leather and gunfire, but because their mood and colors do so on their own. The best example of that power comes in Morricone 60’s re-envisioning of the noisily classic “Main Theme” from The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. Devoid of its usual gut-shot yipping howls and twangy guitars, the new version is rich with deeper bassoon and brass arrangements to maintain its sand-swept majesty. “The new album was meant to mirror what had come before,” he says. “Maybe this time, though, I did not have the original instrumentation available. So I change to whatever I see fit. I decide right there and then.”

Spoken like a true sonic adventurer.

—A.D. Amorosi

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matt pond PA: Hazy Shade Of Winter

matt pond PA once again trudges through the snow on new LP

The 11th matt pond PA full-length, Winter Lives, features artwork that evokes Windham Hill’s catalog and suggests Roger McGuinn if he’d been to the acoustic emo manor born. As the album swirls and drifts like the titular season, a question skitters across the expanse: Is the title noun accompanied by an adjective or a verb?

“It’s supposed to be both,” says Matt Pond diplomatically. “It depends on who you’re talking to. If you like that person, you can agree on the name. If you don’t, you can say, ‘No, it’s this.’”

There’s no clarification in the album’s title track, with its acoustic guitar intro setting a crystalline tone as perfectly as Greg Lake’s “I Believe In Father Christmas.” Pond’s lyrics reflect each possibility. “I say ‘Winter lives’ and ‘Show me winter lives’ both,” says Pond. “It’s harder to hear, but I’m trying to make that point subtly.”

Winter Lives arrives 11 years after Pond’s nearly all covers EP, Winter Songs. He admits a deliberate connection between the two works but confesses to a theme obsession.

“I think an idea will get stuck in my mind and then I’ll write into it,” he says. “A lot of the finality of things is based in looking at mortality, from the specific spot where I’m standing, into that long or not-so-long distance, winter being the most deathly of them all. I think of albums, even as I’m writing them, as albums, so in some ways, when you write that first song, it’s a curse, but it’s a good curse. I wrote ‘Winter Lives,’ and I thought, ‘There’s so much more in these moments.’”

Pond, a New Hampshire native, understands the season that inspired Winter Lives, but he needed to write winter songs in the spring, so the album would arrive in context. Given his background, Pond didn’t scratch down too far to find inspiration. “It’s just visceral,” he says of winter. “There’s this coldness and shut-down emotional temperament to people in northern places, but when you get through that, there’s so much depth and reality to northern people. Dragging yourself outside is a big deal, and everything acquires an extra layer of labor. And an extra layer. I like the austerity, but then I like the eventual ‘removing your coat and opening up’ part of it, too.”

Pond, an admitted onetime “Beatles dork,” longtime collaborator Chris Hansen and cellist Shawn Alpay wrote Winter Lives and brought in the Mynabirds’ Laura Burhenn and Moving Panoramas’ Leslie Sisson to flesh out the sound. Most of the recording was done remotely but still retains a palpable immediacy.

“Shawn lives in Portland now, so we used the internet a lot; it can be a tool for good,” says Pond. “The studio is my house for the most part. Shawn recorded stuff in his house, Chris makes a lot happen with a little stuff, and nothing is off the table. Some people know the studio backward and forward, and it’s a great place to open up songs, but I’m just not that way. I think it’s actually motivating to realize your limitations and accept anything that happens.”

Ranging from the jangly heartland chamber rock of “The Glow” to the poignant folk arrow of “Dirty Looks,” Winter Lives is also punctuated by little instrumental vignettes such as “Leggings In The Living Room,” which Pond asserts were not afterthoughts but intentionally purposed connective tissue.

“I wouldn’t want them to be arbitrary or just put in to kill time,” he says. “We try to finish about six songs over the point of being done so we know what we have is what’s right, in our minds, at least. To me, it completes the larger image. I’m trying. That’s going to be on my tombstone, I think.”

—Brian Baker

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Itasca: Rainmaker

itasca

Itasca is at the head of the river of song

Catch an Itasca concert and you might see a band playing understated, country-tinged songs that map out the states between serenity and apprehension. Or you might see just one person playing those songs: singer/guitarist Kayla Cohen.

Either way, you’ll hear quietly involving music that’s in constant motion but aims at getting to the root of things. The movement comes from Cohen’s fleet but unflashy guitar picking and the empathetic backing of the band on her new album, Open To Chance (Paradise Of Bachelors), each of which implies side paths off the main road taken by her cool, graceful vocals. And what about that pursuit of the roots? Just consider her explanation for the name, which integrates geography, sonority and the word’s Latin origins.

“Itasca is the name of a lake at the headwaters of the Mississippi, and it’s also the name of a couple small towns across the country,” she says. “I thought it was a nice-sounding word to use as a band name. The word means a bunch of different things: the idea of truth, and the unknown.”

One thing you won’t hear is a sound that easily dates Itasca’s tunes to any recent decade. Cohen may have grown up listening to Slint and Codeine, but Itasca has more in common with private-press folk from the ’60s and ’70s and obscure heroes of English folk rock.

“It’s a sound that feels natural to me,” she says. “I’m not trying to make something that sounds retro, but I do listen to a lot of music from that era. I really like the sound of someone sitting with an acoustic guitar and letting it all out. Michael Chapman is a big influence, and acoustic guitar is interesting to get into. I’m trying to get to my own natural sound, something that feels honest.”

—Bill Meyer

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Plastic Ants: No Alternative

plasticants

Plastic Ants make prog pop for this modern world

Plastic Ants’ songwriter Robert Cherry spent 10 years editing Alternative Press. Now, he’s joined the ranks of Patti Smith and Neil Tennant, musicians who wrote about music and are in their own bands.

“I was writing songs in my early teens and playing in bands shortly after, so music came first,” says Cherry. “I stumbled into an editing career at Alternative Press in the ’90s. It was fun and provided a great musical education that fed my songwriting and tuned my ear.”

Cherry started Plastic Ants in Cincinnati with the help of Afghan Whigs bassist/producer John Curley, Wussy drummer/singer Joe Klug and classically trained keyboardist/singer Guy Vanasse. The band’s sweeping, cinematic songs hark back to the progressive pop of the ’70s, but the quartet puts a modern spin on the classic sounds that inspired them.

“Rob and I talked about forming a band like the Zombies,” says Curley. “Not to sound like them but to have the same instrumentation—guitar, keys, drums and bass—and use vocals in a prominent way. Guy and Joe are great at writing and singing harmonies, but after that initial concept, the music evolved organically. The ’70s were a great decade for music. It’s no surprise people are looking back for inspiration.”

New album Imperial Phase was recorded in Curley’s home studio, giving the band an opportunity to create expansive, multifaceted soundscapes.

“We took time trying different things with arrangements,” says Curley. “We’re always looking for something new to run through the Leslie cabinet. The real evolution happens during the overdubs. People start adding ideas, trying different instruments, adding vocal layers. ‘A Sea Of Upturned Faces’ is a good example of that. The middle section with the synth and guitar solos came together during an overdub session. It was very quick and spontaneous, with everyone contributing ideas.”

—j. poet

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Stirrup: Riding High

stirrup

Chicago’s Stirrup continues to stir up post-modern jazz

In gynecological and equestrian pursuits, stirrups keep a body in place. But Chicago-based trio Stirrup likes things unfixed. Is it a singer’s backup band or a self-contained instrumental ensemble? A jazz group or a rock combo? Purveyor of lyric melody or ear-scouring noise?

Yes.

Cello and tenor guitar player Fred Lonberg-Holm, bassist Nick Macri and drummer Charles Rumback are all longtime participants in Chicago’s jazz scene with a collective CV that includes work with Ken Vandermark, Peter Brötzmann and Tony Malaby. But they all work with vocalists, too, and the trio first convened to accompany singer/guitarists Janet Beveridge Bean and Jim Elkington in a band called the Horse’s Ha. Recalls Lonberg-Holm, “A critic described us as a ‘post-modern jazz trio.’ We thought we’d see what we were like as a trio, and we liked it enough to keep playing. It’s one time a critic helped.”

Stirrup played its first singer-less gig in 2009, and while it still accompanies vocalists upon request, the trio has become a continuously working ensemble with three albums to its credit. The tunes that each man brings to the band are a diverse lot. They’re united by a reliance on steady pulse and bold, memorable melodies, but Lonberg-Holm is also prone to blowing them apart with electronically fried outbursts of scabrous noise. In concert, the band further shakes things up by inviting outside musicians to sit in.

“We don’t have a default mode of playing in Stirrup,” says Rumback. “I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because we all come from different backgrounds as players or because we hear things very differently. Sometimes I feel like this makes me have to dig deep as a player, because we don’t have a ‘comfort zone’ of falling into a ‘rock thing’ or a ‘jazz groove.’”

—Bill Meyer

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Jess Williamson: The Big Empty

jess

Austin’s Jess Williamson continues her glorious journey into the void

Sometimes, it’s what you don’t say—or play—that matters. In the case of Jess Williamson, it’s the vacancies that lend tension and texture to her lonesome, weather-beaten take on confessional songwriting.

“I’m always thinking about how space can be another voice or another instrument,” she says. “You want to listen closer to a whisper than a shout.”

Unflinching self-examination informs Williamson’s new release, Heart Song (Brutal Honest/Kartel). Yet there’s something universal—and not especially precious or even personal—about a pivotal line like, “Is freedom really nothing left to lose?/Is freedom something that I have?/Something that I have, with you?”

Central to the groggy allure of Heart Song’s seven songs are the twists and turns mapped out by Williamson’s malleable vocals and the atmospheric six-string meanderings of RF Shannon’s Shane Renfro. “I’d been playing with this band for almost a year before the album was recorded,” says Williamson. “This was the first time I could write a song on my own and bring it to them, and we could flesh it out together.”

About two years ago, Williamson returned to her native Texas after an acknowledged “freakout” in New York City, where she’d been working toward a master’s degree in photography at Parsons School Of Design. “I remember the exact moment of realizing, ‘What am I doing here?’” she says.

A romantic breakup was involved, so it’s no surprise that a sense of dislocation and loss pervades her 2014 debut, Native State. So frayed does Williamson sound that you’d never know how excited she really was be to back in Austin—or that she’s basically a fun person. In fact, one of the most disarming things about talking to Williamson is how upbeat and optimistic she is about almost everything—even her own failings.

“Nobody’s perfect—I’m not perfect—but I’m generally a pretty happy, stoked person,” she says. “I just haven’t found inspiration from that place yet.”

—Hobart Rowland

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CRX: Go With The Flow

crx

Strokes guitarist Nick Valensi emerges with new band CRX

Three years ago, Nick Valensi was facing an existential crisis. The guitarist’s band the Strokes had just released its fifth album, Comedown Machine, but no tour was planned. And with every other member of the group but him having flown solo after its landmark 2001 debut Is This It, he desperately wanted to return to performing. But whose songs would he play? And who could possibly sing them? Finally, he launched his own side project, the Cars-and-Cheap-Trick-inspired CRX, with a new Josh Homme-produced punk/pop debut disc, New Skin, which the band will back by tooling through nightclubs in a cramped van and bunking in dinky motels.

“I don’t view it as not having gone anywhere—I look at like I’ve come full circle,” he says.

Valensi wasn’t twiddling his thumbs. He’d stayed busy collaborating with artists like Sia, Devendra Banhart and B-52s anchor Kate Pierson, and he’d overseen the launch of his signature guitar line with Epiphone. But he, his significant other Amanda de Cadenet and their twin children had also relocated to L.A. from the Strokes’ home turf of New York City, where he was reveling in quiet home life.

“I’ve always appreciated my down time—I just love being a dad,” says the 35-year-old. “But my kids are a little older now, and it got to a point where I was really hungry to get back onstage and tour. So I didn’t really have any desire to do my own project. Until I did.”

Valensi had only sung harmony vocals behind Strokes bandleader Julian Casablancas and learned singing lead wasn’t easy. Thus began a full year of woodshedding, wherein he laptop-tracked his vocals every day, often experimenting in difficult keys, until he was comfortable with the playback. The next hurdle: lyrics. He’d only contributed occasional Strokes verses. So what did he have to say, exactly? Backed by Guards guitarist/keyboardist Richie Follin, Rondelles strummer Darian Zahedi, bassist Jon Safley and drummer Ralph Alexander, he set out to find his voice.

Valensi arrived at a sleek, cynical sneer—and alienated world view—on chugging keyboard-buttressed anthems like “Anything,” “Monkey Machine,” “Ways To Fake It” and the Strokes-ish “Walls,” on which he growls, “We won’t be sure what’s legendary/Until we read the obituary/I don’t even know what to make of it/When everyone is faking it.”

“It wasn’t until I was done recording New Skin that I stepped back and went, ‘Whoa—I sing about authenticity, and questioning it, a lot,’” he says. “I’m expressing frustration at the amount of phoniness in the world, which starts with reality TV and continues into social media.”

Homme was the final piece of the CRX puzzle. “Right when he came on board, his first thing was, ‘Look, we are not gonna make this sound like Queens Of The Stone Age,’” says Valensi. “And part of me was sad, like, ‘Why wouldn’t we wanna do that?’ But Josh wanted to make my songs as great as possible, and he wanted to challenge himself and capture sounds that he hadn’t before. So we just kept chipping away at the old stone.”

—Tom Lanham

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Deep Sea Diver: Group Project

deepseadiver

Deep Sea Diver’s Jessica Dobson pursues the benefits of team ball

“I’m going to ask him to stop playing drums while we talk, because if he keeps doing that, it’s going to drive me nuts.”

Jessica Dobson lives with—and is married to—the drummer of her band Deep Sea Diver, Peter Mansen. Mansen is doing what drummers do: practicing his craft in another part of the home they share in Seattle. The background noise this activity creates has become a bit unnerving for Dobson as we discuss the finer points of her group’s sophomore LP, Secrets (self-released via High Beam), perhaps one of the finest albums of 2016.

Dobson’s musical bona fides are undeniable. Signed to a contract with Atlantic Records at age 19 (she recorded two albums for the label that were ultimately shelved), the gifted multi-instrumentalist went on to perform as a touring and recording member of the Shins, Spoon, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, as well as Beck and Conor Oberst, lending her colorful guitar flourishes and knack for offbeat melodies to each act while simultaneously continuing to write and record as Deep Sea Diver.

Having released the well-regarded History Speaks LP in 2012 and the even-better Always Waiting EP in 2014, Dobson finally bid her time with the Shins adieu—with James Mercer’s blessing—to blaze her own musical trail, but not as a solo artist. Instead, within a band construct.

The results on Deep Sea Diver’s latest release have proven worth the wait. With Dobson’s focus now solely applied to her own music, the quartet has taken a considerable leap forward, recording Secrets with Radiohead engineer Darrell Thorp as a mostly live-in-the-studio affair, allowing the band’s interplay to fully take flight on tracks such as the squalling, propulsive “Wide Awake,” bouncing pop confection “Creatures Of Comfort” (the upbeat melody of which belies the pain implied by a repeated assertion that “it’s tearing us apart”) and the album’s finest moment, “Body On The Tracks,” a soaring guitar-and-mellotron fest that could easily pass for one of Billy Corgan’s studio-built guitar orchestras if I hadn’t witnessed Dobson playing it note-perfectly during her band’s spotless set at Seattle’s Bumbershoot Festival earlier this year.

“I tend to take the ‘mad-scientist’ approach to playing live,” says Dobson. “On certain songs (such as “Wide Awake”), I get to have a blank slate to do whatever I want. The way we recorded Secrets was to do the basic tracks live in the studio, to be all in a room together and capture a completely different spirit than the first album, which was multitracked and recorded separately. I’m proud of that record, and it actually has a really analog vibe, but we had yet to capture what our live performances were like. The songs on Secrets are more unhinged, have a more urgent feel to them than what we did before.”

Dobson’s considerable individual gifts notwithstanding, it’s her willingness to be a teammate that seems to hold the key to her musical future.

“I used to feel guilty about bringing songs to the band. I would wonder if I’d be able to ‘Jeff Tweedy’ the song, meaning, if it was just me on guitar or piano, would that song translate?” she says. “I’ve grown away from that recently. I still aim for simple, straightforward communication, but if it takes people to fill voices or harmonic parts to capture the spirit of the song, I’m a lot more OK with that now. I can’t get the value of Secrets across just by myself.”

—Corey duBrowa

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Kristin Hersh: Metaphysical Graffiti

kristinhersh

Five years in the making, Kristin Hersh releases a double album that stands alongside her best

“People think that I make a bunch of shit up, but I only write non-fiction. The books, the songs. My drummer in 50FOOTWAVE, Rob, asked me one time, ‘Do people know that your songs are all literally true? ’Cuz if they did, they might lose a lot of respect for you.’”

With a wheezy laugh, Kristin Hersh—yes, that Kristin Hersh, she of Throwing Muses, her rowdier 50FOOTWAVE project, the immortal solo collaboration with R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe (“Your Ghost”) and published author of Rat Girl and Don’t Suck, Don’t Die (two of the finest memoirs about the indie-rock era)—alerts me to a seemingly funny aspect of her art that’s actually dead serious.

Hersh is a diarist capable of evoking towering emotional vistas and yet seemingly incapable of telling a lie, or even a tale. She’s a storyteller in the Truman Capote or Susan Orlean mode—a realist more in touch with the ebbing and flowing of human foibles and frailty than a novelist or fantasist. This makes Hersh’s work both harrowing and healing in equal measure—a razor’s edge ride through the realities she’s survived but with a comfort-food aspect to its truths. She’s lived through this; you can, too.

On Hersh’s ninth solo record in what can only be described as an incredibly prolific career—Wyatt At The Coyote Palace (Omnibus Press), a double-album of dizzying depth, breadth, beauty and darkness—this truth-teller’s aspect of her work is thrust forcefully into the spotlight. Its songs can easily be taken as a conceptual allegory—a twisting tale of isolation and damage, love and loss, the joy of discovery and the erosion of the thin tethers of humanity that keep us connected to one another and those we love—but it’s also a very real portrait of her son Wyatt and his passing fascination with an abandoned building and the coyotes who took up residence there. Wyatt is on the autism spectrum—a difficult subject that Hersh is nonetheless remarkably open in discussing—and his obsessions and attachment to what Hersh says he calls the “beautiful, elegant math” of both music and life are the elements that make the story heartbreaking and inspiring.

“He’s like a story that’s unfolding,” says Hersh. “He tends to look at life through a lens rather than living it. He says he keeps finding the math. I trust the story that he is, and so when I discovered the ‘coyote palace,’ I thought it was just because he was bored. When I bring all four of my kids into the studio, they just want to die, you know? It’s me playing the same guitar part over and over again, and usually they just go to sleep. So I think he discovered the coyote palace out of sheer boredom, and then I noticed the flashing in his eyes, that he was on fire with it. All I did was follow him around the palace, the coyotes who lived in it. And showed it to him. Of course, being the good mother I am, the ceiling fell in at some point, and the trauma of that event triggered the end of his love affair with the coyote palace. At least we weren’t in it at the time.”

The album and corresponding book document her son’s temporary life-focus on the abandoned building and its canine inhabitants in a way that’s both uniquely Hersh-ian and yet all-time beautiful. The packaging binds the two inextricably to one another—a detail Hersh finds amusing, because while CDs tend not to be that valuable to anyone anymore, “A book is still considered a nice gift, so I like the idea of all of it together as, ‘Hey, here’s a present.’”

The record’s mostly acoustic guitars veer back and forth between Nick Drake intricacy and punk-rock jaggedness, its 24 songs caught between descriptions of tough love and gritty city streetscapes and the occasional bright glimpses of tomorrow that poke through the darkness, with the book’s zigzagging narrative nicely accounting for the spaces in between.

It’s been a long, hard road that Hersh has travelled to get to this place, but she seems to have found peace with it all, just the same.

“I have a huge heart, and my heart is just so broken right now,” she says. “I’m never really going to live on this earth, but I can live in my music. I can make it all right. There’s no sad in me with music. There’s nothing but—it’s an overused word, but it’s true—beautiful. ‘Water in the desert’ beautiful. Necessary.”

—Corey duBrowa

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