Robbie Fulks is a good example of an underrated musician, a brilliant songwriter who doesn't usually color in the lines. What makes him great is the same thing that keeps him from showing up on mainstream country charts. Vocally, Missoula's Larry Hirshberg actually sounds a bit like Fulks at times (or vice versa). But mostly what they share is that they won't (or can't) blend into the mainstream. Hirshberg has released several albums, some of which are experimental noise, others that are more singer-songwriter folk and even some rock music. His latest, Power Down Devices, is a no-frills, acoustic solo album.
Part of what makes Hirshberg interesting is that he never seems to be trying to make the listener feel something. He takes a simple idea, sometimes a trivial one, and expands on it until something magical happens. In "Put the Kettle On" he lists all the reasons for putting a kettle on the stove including, "You're alone at home and the house is old, put the kettle on." But then as the song progresses it becomes stranger. Suddenly you've got lines like "Residue of a dream, it makes you cold, put the kettle on," and "In the dark you think you need air. Light a fire underneath your stairs." What are we talking about now? There's never a menacing tone to Hirshberg's songs, but stray ideas creep in that start to push them into wonderfully uncertain territory.
There are a few tracks that don't rise to the level of others. The repetitive riffs and chorus of "There It Is" feel uninspired, though it might actually make a really good punk rock song. Hirshberg's unapologetic tone has always made me think he could write a good three-chord, Partisans-style anthem.
I don't know if that would really work or not. What I do know is that Hirshberg is a poet, in that he knows how to build tension through words rather than worrying about the plot. In "Pony or a Hearse," he imagines life in the womb, a robbery and birds "singing like dessert." He sings, "Now it's up to you to write your own verse. Are you going to ride a pony or a hearse?" You don't know what he means exactly, but you might sort of understand. Those are the murky waters Hirshberg swims in.
That idea of writing your own verse is a pervasive theme in Power Down Devices. Like the poet Elizabeth Bishop, Hirshberg uses his songwriting skills to talk about words. In "She's Singing about Whiskey," it's not the whiskey he desires to sip but the chorus itself. In another song, he looks for a word he should use to rhyme with "awake." It's all so meta, but not in a pretentious way. You can enjoy this album absentmindedly if you need to—Hirshberg knows how to pluck pretty chords and be engaging. But if you really listen to what he's doing, you'll see the ways in which he's breaking rules, deliberately or not. It might keep him from appealing to everyone, but it will always make him worth listening to.
Larry Hirshberg plays the Red Bird Wine Bar Mon., Dec. 16, at 7 PM. Free.