Kristin Hersh
Strange Angels

When sung to children, lullabies are meant to induce sleep. When sung to adults by Kristin Hersh, they have the opposite effect. And it seems that no matter how sweet or hushed the sound of Strange Angels, Hersh's lullabies disturb more than they comfort, jolting you awake when you're about to doze off. It can be a jarring experience, akin to what the artist herself calls "cold water coming for the warm-water junkies." But it can be oddly moving, too.

Similar to Hersh's 1994 solo debut, Hips and Makers, Strange Angels is a whispered testament, leaning on one voice and an acoustic guitar, with occasional splashes of piano, cello and strings. The result is far removed from Hersh's work with the alt-rock band Throwing Muses, which packed it in last year after a decade of struggle and eight full-length releases of coarse, uneven beauty. Along with her husband and kids, Hersh has made an even cleaner break from the past, leaving Boston for the solitude of the California desert near Joshua Tree.

True to her new home base, Strange Angels sounds like a collection of folk songs written and sung under the clear night sky. "Away, away ... gone away," Hersh sings at one point, and about the time you drift off with her, she delivers the kicker, "Fall into ... icy blue ... cold water." Thanks, mom, I needed that.

Throughout the disc's 15 tracks, Hersh slides into focus for a moment, then fades out again with a non sequitur or far-out simile (for example, "like a hot pink kite with no string"). But it's worth withstanding such moments to hear her one-line epiphanies, from "I get weaker when you treat me like a queen" to "I broke me, I can't break you too."

While Hersh has long been cast as a mad poet (a role she helped create by confessing to bipolar depression), Strange Angels is really the work of a sane woman who, disillusioned by big-city life, has chosen to burrow into the desert sand. It's a mistake to read too much into Strange Angels, just as it's wrong to underestimate it.

The last time I saw Hersh perform in concert, I could have sworn she was staring into my soul with those intense blue eyes. Later I learned that she removes her contacts before taking the stage, the better to avoid stage fright. To loosely paraphrase Chrissie Hynde (by way of Oscar Wilde), we are all of us in the gutter, but some of us are squinting at the stars. (****)

-- Keith Moerer

Bill Wyman and the Rhythm Kings
Struttin' Our Stuff

So, what does an ex-Stone do when he needs a break from overseeing his chain of English hamburger emporiums? Makes a CD, of course. Bill Wyman's put himself at the helm of a new band, the Rhythm Kings, providing bass, occasional vocals and a bit of songwriting in hopes of conjuring some of the emotional honesty he heard decades ago within the grooves of his treasured American blues, R&B and jazz imports.

Indeed, on Struttin' Our Stuff, it's tribute time, and Wyman is having a ball -- although his idea of fun is light years away from the perfunctory professionalism of the middle-aged Glimmer Twins or even the Dionysian swagger of vintage Stones. Think Dire Straits by way of J.J. Cale or, if you really know your music history, Andy Fairweather-Low and Kokomo. Like those artists, the Rhythm Kings and guests serve up an easygoing concoction that never fails to comfort as it swirls around its original sources -- namely Chicago blues and Memphis soul.

On the catchy "Stuff (Can't Get Enough)" and the lighthearted, traditionalist jazz/ blues lark, "Going Crazy Overnight," the low-register semi-singing of Wyman suggests a sore-throated Mose Allison doing Tommy's Uncle Ernie. Quaintly endearing, that. Ex-Squeeze member Paul Carrack, less a stranger to singing, leads the way on a decent version of the old flag-waver "Tobacco Road," while vocalist Geraint Watkins, yet another British rock vet, works up a light sweat with the band on gratifying, grin-inducing treatments of Howlin' Wolf's "Down in the Bottom" and Willie Mabon's "I'm Mad." Vocalist Beverly Skeete steps forward on the Wyman-penned blues number "Bad to Be Alone," as assorted brass, ex-Procol Harum leader Gary Brooker's swelling organ, Dave Hartley's piano and jazz man Martin Taylor's keen guitar fills accentuate the song's downcast mood.

In the end, the only fakery on Struttin' Our Stuff is the arch posturing of singer/organist Georgie Fame on the revival of Sascha Burland's obscure "Hole in My Soul" and on the cover of the Stones' "Melody." Yet even the latter tune is rescued by the simmering slow hand of Eric Clapton and the typically warmhearted playing of Wyman and his band. (*** 1/2)

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Liz Belile
Stephen Gershon
Frank-John Hadley
Keith Moerer
David Simutis