Y’can keep yer Jonis ‘n Pattis ‘n Debbies ‘n Kates ‘n Amys ‘n ‘rethas ‘n what have ye. If I were to pick just one woman to soundtrack International Women’s Day, it’d be PJ Harvey. Strong, powerful and always in charge, she’s the perfect role model for right-thinking people of all sexes. There’s no better time than now to share something I wrote originally for the Vinyl Villain blog a couple of years ago. James (the VV himself) runs a regular imaginary compilation feature where a guest contributor will open his and perchance his readers’ minds to new, previously unheard music. I chose to write about PJ.
Following a recent post on Plain Or Pan, JC wrote me a lovely and flattering begging letter, asking if I’d contribute a piece on PJ Harvey for The Vinyl Villain. Now, just to qualify, I’m no expert on Polly Jean. I’m a huge fan and I have most of her back catalogue (the odd collaborative effort aside) and while there are other artists that I obsess far more over and go to first when choosing something to play on the rare occasion I have the house to myself, PJ is always somewhere in the background, shuffling up unannounced but always welcome on my iPod during the commute to work, or peeking out at me in-between my George Harrison and Richard Hawley albums. The bulk of her music still thrills and amazes and stands up to repeated listens long after the time of release, which is surely the mark of a true artist.
It’s incredible to think that PJ Harvey has been making records for nigh on a quarter of a century. From the lo-fi scuzz of Dry via the Patti Smith-isms of Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea and the stark, piano-only White Chalk right up to her
most recent collection of WW1-themed songs on Let England Shake (not forgettting the one-off single in support of Guantanamo Bay prisoner Shaker Aamer), she’s one of our most consistent musicians. Daring, unpredictable and true to herself, she’s right up there with the best of ’em.
Excitingly, she has a new LP in the offing. April, I believe (it was – 2016’s The Hope Six Demolition Project). The first fruits are spinning heavily on BBC 6Music every day just now, and they’re sounding terrific. As a primer, JC asked me to collate a compilation for the uninitiated, put together any way I saw fit.
I begin with the caveat that the tracks I’ve chosen today might not necessarily be the ones I’d chose tomorrow, but I’ve chosen one track from each of her 8 studio LPs (excluding the 4 Track Demos stop-gap LP or those collaborative efforts mentioned earlier). Some of the tracks were singles, some were hidden away in the darkest corners of the album from whence they came. All are classic PJH; garagey, bluesy and occasionally down right dirty. There’s the odd bit of cello and throw-away sweary word. But there’s always the voice, her primal moans sexy as hell one moment, skyscrapingly stratospheric the next.
Sheela Na Gig
Sheela Na Gig was PJ’s second single and also appeared on Dry, her debut LP. She sets her stall out early here, singing about ‘child bearing hips‘ and ‘ruby red lips’. Hearing this for the first time as a 21 year old, I had no idea what a Sheela Na Gig was (Google it), so I listened to this thinking “Oh! Aye!” From then on I always harboured faint hopes that she might take a mutual shine to me, should our paths ever cross. S’too late now though, Peej. Sorry.
50 ft Queenie was the lead single from 2nd album Rid Of Me. Rid Of Me is such a quiet record, which has always irked me. For an artist who apparently revels in creating a whirlwind of chaotic noise, the album seemed so quiet and tame by comparison. I’m sure there must be some sort of audiophile reason for it, subsonic frequencies and the likes, but who knows? When you play it next to something like, oh, I dunno, Definitely Maybe (like comparing jam with cheese, I know), PJ’s album sounds limp and flimsy next to the sonic boom of the monobrowed magpies.
Anyway. 50ft Queenie. The drum track sounds like the Eastenders theme falling down the stairs, a right royal ramalama of tumbling toms and clattering cymbals all underpinned with a bluesy riff and topped off with those sexy/skyscraping moans and screams. “You bend ovah, Casa-nova…” Indeed. Great one note guitar solo too.
I have a clear memory of seeing her perform this in the Barrowlands, wearing a pink feather boa, knee high boots of shiny, shiny leather, a Gretsch Country Gentleman and not much more. A spectacular sight and sound. If you’ve never heard this before, make sure you strap yourself in first.
Come On Billy
Come On Billy can be found on the Mercury-nominated To Bring You My Love LP. Featuring some frantically scrubbed acoustic guitar and see-sawing cello, it’s PJ’s Nick Cave (aye, him again) moment. There’s a terrific, understated string section playing below the whole way through, the first evidence that PJ had more to her arsenal than bent blues notes screaming through a tower of Marshall stacks. I’ve always liked how she hiccups her way through the adlibbed chorus at the end.
The Wind (from the Is This Desire? LP) is a slow-burning cracker. For such a slight ‘n skinny woman, PJ’s tune packs more muscle than it has any right to. It‘s her Barry Adamson moment; filmic, bass-heavy and full of brooding menace.
It fades in on a ripple of marimba and a stutter of just-plugged-in guitar, with PJ’s vocal quickly taking centrestage. Whisper-in-your-ear sultriness one moment, understated falsetto the next, it tells the story of St Catherine of Abbotsbury who built a chapel high on a hill near to where PJ lives.
The whole track is carried along by the bassline. When it comes in, after that second ‘noises like the whales’ line, it brings to mind some New York street punk, hands deep in the pockets of his leather bomber jacket, docker’s hat pulled hard and low over his forehead, eyes shifting from left to right and back again, looking to start trouble, looking to avoid trouble, but, looking for trouble.
It’s produced masterfully by Flood who brings an electro wash to the finished result. In fact, it wouldn’t sound out of place on any given recording by Harvey’s fellow West Country contemporaries Tricky and Massive Attack. There’s subtle tingaling percussion, quietly scraping cello and layers of synthetic noise. When the vocals begin their counter-melodies in the chorus, it’s pure Bjork.
Kamikaze is taken from Stories From the City, Stories From The Sea, PJ’s second Mercury-nominated LP. Her most straightforward pop/rock album, most of the tracks had the knack of sounding like Patti Smith on steroids.
Kamikaze is terrific, a down-the-hill-with-no-brakes-on, headlong rush of close-mic’d guitars, polyrhythmic drums and yet more skyscraping hysterics. It’s a close cousin of 50ft Queenie, only with far better production and mastering.
If you’re new to PJ and any of these tracks have so far piqued your curiosity, I’d start with this track’s parent album and take things from there.
Who The Fuck?
Now we’re talking! PJ’s angry. Someone’s pissed her off and she can’t wait to tell us. Coming across like a demented Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, WTF? kicks like an angry mule, a fuzztoned, vocally distorted, brilliant mess of a record.
It’s a sloppy, stroppy, brilliantly sweary track. If you took ten wasps in a jar and stuck them in a food blender with the short-lived RRRRRiot Grrrrrrl movement, it would sound something like this.
The White Chalk LP is a difficult listen. Very difficult. I listened to it once then filed it away. For the purposes of this article I dug it out again and spent one dreary afternoon (it’s only about 35 mins long, but honestly, I’d rather stick pencils in my eye than have to listen to it again) waiting patiently until I ‘got it’. I still don’t.
I chose The Devil as it’s the lead track, and from experience, the lead track is usually a statement of intent from the artist. Well, PJ sets her stall out early with this one. The whole album is funereal in pace, delicate, flimsy and abso-fucking-lutely boring. PJ coos and woos and plays her piano with all the deftness of a concert pianist, but damn, there’s nothing there that grabs. No balls-out rockers, no dirty, sweary, innuendo-filled garage band fizzers. Nothing. For all its gossamer-thin lightness, it’s an extremely heavy listen. Maybe you think differently. For me, it’s the one clunker in a stellar back catalogue. And every artist is allowed the occasional clunker, aye?
The Glorious Land
Following the stark, piano-led White Chalk, Let England Shake was PJ’s triumphant return to the guitar. Much of the album is loosely concept, relating to the atrocities of WW1. If this seems a bit heavy, the music therein was often light and airy; gone for the most part were the blooze blunderbuss guitars, replaced with lightly chiming 6 strings, clean and pleasant on the ear. Radio 2 music, even.
The Glorious Land begins with such a guitar, playing atop a rallying military bugle. Without getting too ‘muso’ about it, the chord changes are sublime and the vocals are always to the fore. There’s almost a male/female duet in the verses, between PJ and (I think) a moonlighting Mick Harvey, which comes across like a 21st century Lee ‘n Nancy on helium, while PJ duets gloriously with herself in the chorus and outro. You might want to discover the rest of this album for yourself. It’s one of her best.
And there you have it, 8 tracks o’ PJ. A cross-album introduction I’d be happy to pass on to anyone with a PJ curiosity.