“Dedicated To Shelley’s mother Fran, who could describe in the most vivid detail things that brought her pleasure (fried onion rings included!!!)”
Not only this quote from the liners lets us ascertain the genetic derivation of Shelley Hirsch’s endowment for narrative – I, for one, would spend days reading these meticulous accounts of existential shards, from apparently meaningless to hurting in the innermost – but it helps in establishing an important limit. We regularly forget about the border separating the love for our dears and the recognition of a reality that is often wholly different from what was hoped. In Where Were You Then?, Hirsch magically manages to slap the face with unforgiving truths masked as fairy tales of sorts. Not exactly with a happy ending, always replete with hundreds of barely noticeable particulars that, once joined, complete a sensational mosaic. A synthesis of adolescent adventure, violent scare, physical infatuation and sense of loss; a maturity that never thrusts childhood scents and uneasy recollections aside.
It takes a lot to pull wisdom out of such a weighty baggage through a mere record. Enter Swiss composer Simon Ho (short for Hostettler), a rather obscure and extremely talented keyboardist and arranger who, together with the more renowned partner, created sixteen delicious orchestral frames executed by musicians at the highest levels of competence (percussionist Tony Buck, bassist-cum-tuba Dave Hofstra and cellist Tomas Ulrich the “familiar” names amidst a grouping of less famous – but still fantastic – string players). Every episode of this CD is contextualized by stylistic connotations that highlight the dramatically engaging aspects of Hirsch’s recounting. The insistently shifting piano arpeggios accompanying the description of her mother’s declining health in the heartrending “The Nursing Home”. The washes of string drones ebbing and flowing under the text of “Earl And Me”, chronicle of two mature persons finally meeting after a fervid internet correspondence. The waltz typifying the opening “Kathy Ray”. The half-Mitteleuropean, half-extraterrestrial accents of “Julius”, for this writer the record’s top of gracefulness in describing the purest affection – that between a human and a dog – in a piece that will jeopardize self-imposed fortitudes in sympathetic receivers. Even the tracks gifted with a bizarre irony (“Baa Baa Black Sheep”) don’t succeed in diverting the attention from the inherent angst that informs the near entirety of this release, ideally symbolized by the memory of the Israeli athletes killed by Black September fanatics during the infamous massacre at 1972’s Olympic Games in Munich in a chapter titled “Hitchhiking/Heinz”.
Furthermore, Hirsch acknowledges a restricted group of peculiar characters – in some occasion, unsung heroes like Jim Gartenberg (a man who, in the middle of the terrorist attack at the World Trade Center, was trying to encourage live TV viewers while stuck on the 86th floor of a soon-to-crumble edifice). Throughout these stories – narrating everything from the variable effects of drugs on herself and friends to the curliness of an old woman’s pubic hair just instants before death – the vocalist epitomizes a unique role of medium: “individual experience” versus “sharing the facts of life”. How many times you’ve wished that someone understood a flux of intimate flashes that no word can express, yet a chord – or a song – perfectly conveys? With the help of a luminous compositional cohort, Shelley Hirsch has perhaps released her finest work to date, subverting roles in the meantime: at first accepting the audience as her own psychoanalyst, she ends extracting regret, affirmative smiles and utter admiration from the overwhelmed listener.