Hersh’s voice and songwriting simultaneously embody that pain and vulnerability and hold it at arm’s length
“I don’t know where the fat skier is from…” I read. My eye had been caught by the splash of red, the Pollocked fizz of paint on the cover. I bent to peer at the pale scribbled words. “She is like a thought, that one would think is too pregnant to be graceful.” Bargain-bin vinyl was 19 cents at Off the Record in 1987. Nineteen cents! It was Saturday afternoon in November in San Diego, and we were rummaging — you never knew what you might find. I held the album out in front of me. Suddenly I could see her: the fat skier, a sunlit smile on her face, poles in hand, the snow under her skis. Not graceful?
“But one would be wrong.
Like the thought I send you.”
Nineteen cents. No skier and only a few pounds overweight, I felt fat at 23. Just starting graduate school, I was graceless, out of place, and I had no idea what this record was going to sound like. I could barely afford 19 cents. I had no idea that The Fat Skier would transform my ears and the way I heard music, would spark a love for Throwing Muses that would sustain my heart through dark times and bond me with a small number of resonant souls over the next 30 years.
The Fat Skier opens with “Garoux des Larmes,” a bristle of David Narcizo’s punk drums and Kristin Hersh’s elastic voice, which rips its way from a growl to a rich drop of liquid gold in the course of a single phrase. Hooked, the listener is reeled in by the haunting “A Feeling.” “I never could see anyone besides you/ Believe it or not/ (Probably not.)” “And a She-Wolf After the War” is the Beatles’ “Because” turned on its side, flexible vocals and time signatures making the Liverpool lads appear contrived by contrast.
Six critical tracks long, side one of the EP closes with the devastating “You Cage,” a minute and a half of just Hersh and her guitar, her voice strolling from butter-rum to rye whisky and in a handful of lines expressing every incoherent jolt your heart has ever had. Those feelings you can’t put words around: that’s what Hersh puts words around. “You cage, you cage/ You sleep me down.” The lyrics don’t lend themselves to analysis, but you don’t need to analyze; you only need to let the music throb through your blood. “I spurn your hotel.” A low howl. “I wear your hotel.”
Narcizo and Hersh are still with the band, and a 2019 live show makes it clear they’ve lost none of their edge. Hersh’s cousin and fellow vocalist/guitarist Tanya Donelly (who went on to semi-stardom in The Breeders and Belly) has long since departed. You can hear a few of the seeds of Donelly’s 2002 delicate solo effort, Whiskey Tango Ghosts, here, but they’re mostly overwhelmed by Hersh’s powerful toughness, belying what would later turn out to be large helpings of pain. Call it bravado, call it desperation, call it resilience: Hersh’s voice and songwriting simultaneously embody that pain and vulnerability and hold it at arm’s length. “So you own ugly hats,” she shrugs, as if the wearer didn’t matter. As if she wished they didn’t matter. “You wear them well.”