Shelley Hirsch and Simon Ho
“Where Were You Then?”
In the emotionally draining piece “The Nursing Home,” on the new album “Where Were You Then?” by vocalist Shelley Hirsch and keyboardist Simon Ho, Hirsch recalls the passing of her mother and a key detail afterward—noticing a book of graphic Victorian-era erotic photography on the nightstand by her mother’s deathbed, full of love letters. It’s a perfect example of the kind of detail that makes the album a biting, compelling listen, with Hirsch revealing herself at her most vulnerable moments.
Throughout the album, this susceptibility is seemingly mirrored by recollections of nakedness—a Parisian nude art model friend, a skinny-dipping partner, her mother being changed by a nurse. Even a middle-aged love interest is afforded a vivid verbal portrait, detailing his spare-tire-physique, balding head and scar-speckled skin.
Intensely personal, it’s an album that subtly deals with the question, “Who can I trust?” by relating stories from online dating and betrayal to being blocks away from ground zero on 9/11 and hearing on the news a caller on the 86th floor saying, “The situation seems to be under control.” The entire album is not heavy and dark, with the title track in particular being a euphoric and exhilarating story about attending an outdoor party 40 years ago on psychedelic mushrooms.
Hirsch is on a short list of notable eccentric vocalists with unique, unconventional singing styles (others include Cathy Berberian and Patty Waters) and “Where Were You Then?” features a combination of spoken and sung parts, with Hirsch frequently adding playful and unusual flourishes and slipping seamlessly into various European accents. Her collaborator, the Swiss composer Simon Ho, offers tasteful string arrangements and synthetics to complement Hirsch’s stories, striking a good balance with gentle sonic stimulation. It’s an album to be savored with complete attention, and it’s like a love letter itself, enveloped in the naked truth, if the listener is willing to let her in.