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Larry Hirshberg: Press

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.
From an email Tom Catmull sent out to his promo list on 7/21/09 -

"Larry Hirshberg is careful with his words.

More careful than most.

I know this because I've been listening to him since I moved to Missoula in 1994. I had no songs of my own at that point. He had plenty, and that was fifteen years ago. "Commercially", his musical path has proved about as fruitful as the average musical path, I suppose. A coffee shop gig. A good pub. An occasional rocking band. Occasional band politics. The sweet opener for the national act. A coffeeshop that realizes how "hassle-free" XM radio is. Another band. Another pub. Occasional crazed but loyal fans.

One thing remains with this guy. Larry has never taken songwriting lightly. His word choice and imagery have never been more pointed or potent. His craft doesn't present itself as commercially driven. And that's not a shot.

Consciously or unconsciously, I believe Larry's music is not designed to sell alcohol. You can't dance to a lot of it. Its not for quick consumption. In many cases, you'll need to go back. There is something you missed that is worth the return. In that way, the songs seem to ask a bit more of the listener. Sometimes you have to go inside. But just as you enter, you get hit with something that seems like it was written by some classic American roots legend with a dusty sounding name. That is, of course, the way the song thing works. If you listen, you can get inside. If you get inside a good one, it is nothing short of DAVID COPPERFIELD MAGIC, I tell you!!! You don't always want to be inside, though. I don't. And I can't. Its a busy world out there. And there is a big old basket of crappy songs to waste you're time on that keeps landing in your lap. Modern country anyone? It'll also make your ears a little gun shy next time a good opportunity presents itself. But the right words in a quiet theater will properly, if only temporarily, destroy all that other stuff. The battle rages on.

Get inside one of this guy's songs. Larry's, that is. It's weird in there. A lot a love. A bit of darkness. Its quirky. Not what you thought. Were you fooled about where you thought you were going? Or were you the victim of your own foolish assumptions!?!?!? It's the Twilight Zone wrapped in a warm fuzzy blanket with some kind of western print. It'll make you want to know him better. And you should.

I was reminded of all this at the Red Bird wine bar the other night when I saddled up to the bar to see my old friend and hear some songs that I know. The bar was packed. Larry was doing his thing and had the strict attention of the tables surrounding him. It reminded me of how powerful those songs are when played right in front of you. Which, in turn, reminded me of how EVEN MORE powerful they are in the quiet of a dark theater. I played a showcase like the one this week in the Crystal years ago, but it featured five writers instead of three. And the two guys who landed most solidly that night were Mr. Hirshberg and the uh,...other "Tarkio guy". Both careful word choosers. Very careful. Don't miss the details. They are delicious. I still get tons of requests for songs of his that I used to sing years ago with some regularity. Some I've forgotten how to play. These include, but are not limited to,...Every One of Those Men, The Quiet Walker, Quicksilver Oxygen Gold, Cycle of Redemption, and on and on...

Larry is one third of where ten bucks and a glass of wine will take you this Wednesday night. And you'll be home at a decent hour."
Tom Catmull - Tom Catmull Himself (Jul 21, 2009)
It's easy to tell that the Grateful Dead influenced Larry Hirshberg. In his kitchen at his East Missoula home, Hirshberg makes a cup of coffee in his Jerry Garcia T-shirt as his playlist, on shuffle, plays a Grateful Dead song. And when he sits down at the table to talk about his new record, The Rise and Fall of Maple Bar Mountain, he traces his musicianship back to a Dead show in Cheney, Wash. in October 1978. He was 20 years old then, a transfer student in his junior year at the University of Montana with good grades, and he'd never picked up a guitar. After the Cheney show he was hooked. The house on Eddy Street where he lived was full of musicians and he had one of them teach him some chords.

"Within a few weeks I had lost interest in school," he says. "All I wanted to do was sit and learn how to play guitar. And so by March of '79, I had dropped out of school and bought my own guitar and left town."

His obsession led him to San Francisco, where he spent time in Victorian apartments off Haight Street jamming with other musicians and trying to ignore the rise of punk bands like the Dead Kennedys.

"I hated punk music," he says. "There was an intense hardcore punk thing going on which I encountered briefly but just ran from every time I saw it. In the end I hated San Francisco because I really wanted to be back in Missoula."

He did get back to Missoula briefly before ending up in Santa Fe, N.M. where he started a band called The Porcupines with Banning Eyre, now of NPR's AfroPop Worldwide. Back then they played English Beat-styled music. They ended up in Eugene, all the while frequenting Dead shows as much as possible. There was a brief stint in Whitefish where Hirshberg played in a cover band called Beaten Path. "It was 1985 and so we were doing just horrible 1980s stuff and '70s stuff. ZZ Top kind of stuff. It was bad. The high point was they had a legs contest at the Palace Bar in Whitefish and so we got to judge that. It was just horrible."

Hirshberg moved to Boston where he reformed a band with his former Porcupines crew called Strunk and White, which incorporated funk and jazz along with other elements of style. He also started playing in a country-styled band called The Bagboys with Nashville musician Paul Burch.

"I didn't get country music until then," Hirshberg says. "There were cool country radio shows in Boston at the time that I listened to but No Depression [magazine] hadn't started yet. But we were playing stuff that would be called alt-country."

When Hirshberg finally moved back to Missoula for good it was with fiddler Grace Decker, and the two of them married and started a band called Th' Spectacles, a guitar/fiddle duo that played about 60 of Hirshberg's originals plus a handful of odd covers by Mercy Dee, Mudflaps, Tom Waits, Iris Dement and Aimee Mann. For a while they also backed up local stalwart Tom Catmull as the Tom Catmull Combo and the Tom Catmull Band. By 2001, Hirshberg and Decker had divorced and Hirshberg quit drinking and going to bars. Since then he's been in several other bands including the last one he fronted, called The Trillionaires.

When he plays acoustic shows at the Red Bird Wine Bar or the Symes Hotel in Hot Springs, it's inevitably a different experience than listening to his albums. His solo recordings, like Packing For Nowhere, often utilize strange sound effects and spoken word and come off as more David Lynch than anything new age or hippie. In fact, Hirshberg isn't the stereotype of a Dead follower. He has a sarcastic, biting sense of humor. He's never really found a mainstream market for his music, and that's been an annoyance to him for decades even though part of his musical aesthetic is to never pigeonhole himself.

"It's always been about hybrid music for me," he says, "and that's always been my problem."

Listening to his newest solo album, The Rise and Fall of Maple Bar Mountain, (or any other song from his bands dating back to the early 1980s), you probably won't hear the Dead. You'll hear songs with psychedelic and blues tinges, but you'll think more of David Byrne or Tom Petty before you'll think Jerry Garcia. If you listen carefully, you'll also get how much of a wordsmith Hirshberg is. In the final song, a stomping, snappy, soulful tune, he sings,"What's new is who died in the meantime, and the hole in the sky that she left. What's new is the Lazuli Bunting who flew down like the jewel of the west. I'm blue! that's so old, but I'm strangely awake." It's in this storytelling where Hirshberg feels the Dead seep through.

"I can hear it in my writing, it's much more about Robert Hunter's songs," he says. "But everyone associates the whole Dead thing with Garcia and the scene and everything that goes with it."

The album, which features musicians Brandon Zimmer and Travis Yost, also has an uplifting feel, but without the cheese. Hirshberg has a family now, a wife of nine years, Debbie, who he says has made him more relaxed, and his daughter, Judy, 3, who sometimes joins him on Downspout, his eclectic KBGA show where he plays everything from Mastadon to George Jones to, of course, the Dead. And even punk songs. Judy has Type-1 diabetes, and Hirshberg often stays up late now to make sure she gets her insulin. During that time he busies himself in his recording studio. It's solo by necessity, but he loves it anyway.

"A lot of people might say, 'What's the point of doing it if you don't have an audience?'" he says. "I don't know what the point is. But I have tried to not do music, and I can't. It's in me. I love to play and I love to sing and I love to write songs. I wanted to be the Grateful Dead when I started, but now I'm just rolling forward. At this point I've been playing for 33 years and it is what it is. I'm not going to have a successful pop band, and I'm fine with that. I'm going to write songs, I'm going to play when I can, where I can, and I'm going to take it as it comes."
Local stalwart Larry Hirshberg showcases his wide-ranging versatility on Box Elder, serving up a dozen tracks that include old-school blues on “Handful of Dirt,” Pink Floyd-esque minimalism on “Nothing to Her,” and the head-bopping pop that drives “Settling Down, Obviously.” Box Elder is a bit like what would happen if you put Tom Petty, Mike Gordon, Weezer and the soundtrack from The Royal Tenenbaums in a blender. And, unlikely as the combination may be, it works.

Hirshberg’s music is virtually a one-man show (a few guests sit in on drums, vocal backup and guitar), and isn’t heavily produced, which gives it a fresh, unapologetic sound. Though he’s a stylistic chameleon, Hirshberg follows similar thematic threads throughout the album. Aging, parenthood, childhood and the discombobulated state of the world are addressed with charming and frank lyrics that at various points hint equally of earnestness and sarcasm. Whether he’s pondering the production of children’s toys in the remarkably catchy “Orange Lion” or calling for a new era of peace in “Watching Combat,” his distinct voice, creative melodies and compelling themes combine for an album that is diverse, but also distinctly Hirshberg.
Review of Packing For Nowhere - Nowhere is a place where the sound of pounding hooves and jazz drum rolls intersect narrations about moths and Tasty Cakes—a twilight zone populated with a dream-like concoction of familiar images and unfamiliar sounds. At least that’s the nowhere of Larry Hirshberg’s new album Packing for Nowhere, an experimental collage of noise and spoken word.

...The album reveals streaks of the dark creepiness of a David Lynch film: in “The Pine Hen,” chord progressions fade in and out like a distorted music box while a woman methodically lists types of hens. In “Packing for Norway,” Hirshberg’s neurotic repetition of “Can you tell I’m nervous?” is countered by a tempered hi-hat and the strange sound of rattling seeds. Or is that oil sizzling in a pan? The clarity of (and indulgence in) sound provides a study in perception. It’s an intriguing album with rich textures that provide something—and somewhere—new.
Review of The Trillionaires' disc, Honeycomb Conjecture - "The honeycomb conjecture posits that a hexagonal grid represents the most efficient way to divide a surface into regions of equal area with the least total perimeter. Which means, of course, it holds the most honey. The Trillionaires’ debut album, Honeycomb Conjecture, seems to maximize space with a similar theory.

Travis Yost strategically unleashes smart drum fills into every nook and cranny while Tyson Roth keeps the bass lines simple but interesting. The latter is especially evident in “Birds of Paradise,” wherein Roth executes climbing and descending scales with snappy vigor. The album is not overproduced, which makes it all the more charming, and though it’s a basic three-piece rock record, the composition is refreshing and the lyrics sharp.

Larry Hirshberg’s vocals have the frank casualness of Tom Petty, and in new-wave songs like “Someone Specific,” he brings a conversational tone that evokes the coolness of David Byrne. “Public Restroom” is one of the album’s catchier creations, with a reggae-influenced riff and the gem line: “Public restroom has afforded me the clearest view/of the world so far.”

A bee’s design captures honey in a uniform grid, but locals The Trillionaires have fashioned an album with strong, diverse tunes that hold just as much substance. "

Reviews of Ice at Home

Review of "Ice at Home"
"From the Harry Nilsson-esque “Steam Locomotive” to the Chuck Berry chug of “Perfect Girl,” these 13 original songs are presented in an unvarnished, warts-and-all style that highlights the harmonies and varied picking styles. But it's Hirshberg's raw, nasally bray that ties it all together. He's no crooner, but then, neither are John Prine or Bob Dylan, right? The near lack of reverb or processing on his voice gives it a vulnerable, yet unapologetic quality. This refusal to sand down the rough edges or ingratiate himself to the listener also comes through in some of the lyrics, such as on “The Rider” when he sings, “She tries hard to make her own luck / Baby needs someone who (exhibits a level of interest).”

Another standout track is “Calendar Blues,” a hillbilly vaudeville polka that hilariously recounts a marriage gone bad from the first date all the way to “that day in court (when) I told the judge ‘I don't.' ” At just over two minutes, it's the shortest song on the album, but also the most fun. Hmm. Larry, let me give you my analyst's number.

The best song on the CD is “209.1 FM.” Inspired, no doubt, by Larry's long-running DJ gig at KBGA, this sad little waltz hangs on the framework of Sporman's gloomy bass notes like tattered laundry in the backyard of a shack under the airport's flight line. The melancholy, late-night feel of the music perfectly supports Hirshberg's duet with himself, as he sings of “wide awake disjointed beats.” Obtuse writing is Hirshberg's specialty, and he seems loath to spell out anything too clearly for the listener. Still, when the music's this good, I don't care if he's singing about a recipe for potato latkes - I'm dancing, baby."
Bob Wire - Missoulian (Jun 14, 2007)
Larry Hirshberg tells supple stories in the limited spaces allotted by songs just a few minutes long. While not every line drips with the promise of platinum sales, his solo acoustic effort Ice at Home features some genuine gems.

The title track scores with wordplay centered on an engagement ring left behind. The chorus begins “His baby left the ice at home / Maybe the boys will think she’s all alone”—just enough information to put an image in listeners’ heads and enough indirection to make it interesting, all laid out to a memorable melody. The song stays on the folksy side of an album that blends in considerable blues such as the saloon-style “Calendar Blues,” an uplifting tune about the rhetoric and reality of love.

Hirshberg’s skill with the guitar is considerable...
Jason Weiner - Missoula Independent (Apr 5, 2007)