Friday, 24 April 2009

PJ Harvey @ Shepherd's Bush Empire 20 April

'Now we all know why we're here', drawled Howie Gelb, the supporting warm-up, 'so don't worry, I'll keep this short.'

We all knew what he meant - that the packed out O2 Academy, Shepherd's Bush Empire, to give it its full title, was only waiting for PJ Harvey. Crucially, I imagine that the turnout was for Polly Harvey alone, even though her long time collaborator John Parish was also on the bill and they were promoting an album they've written together.

'Crucially', as this was a flat gig, occasionally threatening to ignite but almost always undermining itself: I suspect that this had a lot to do with the material and how it works as part of Polly's stage act. They played all the tracks from the new album and a couple from Dance Hall. Black Hearted Love was the opener; The Chair worked in the space and April, which isn't great on disc worked well as an expansive encore number.

Yet The Soldier, a favourite of mine on disc, was insubstantial in concert. Even The Chair dried up right in front of our ears with its wistful coda of regret, inappropriate for this event. Polly seemed distracted or bored, her performance in so many songs amounting to little more than singing along to herself whilst doing the washing up.

What was really galling though were those moments when she did come alive. A Woman A Man Walked By and Pig Will Not had her thrusting herself out to the front of the stage, belligerent, sexual - literally a taller figure than in the rest of the set. These are two of my least favourite tracks on the album but they were the evening's highlights.

Part of this was to do with the sound mix. Textures that had been lovingly created in the studio were sucked into a white noise of volume and Polly's voice tended to be very low in the mix (there were repeated calls for her to up the vocals).

I think the most significant issue though was simply that she hadn't written the material. Performing someone else's music must present a notable filter to the manner of her performance, which, as we saw in the two most expressionist numbers, tends to be be spontaneous, without the fetters of forethought.

In one of the many interviews prior to this tour she was asked about her 'barking' in Pig Will Not. She countered by questioning whether she was 'barking' at all, claiming that it was just some sort of unpremeditated exclamation. In concert I get the point: barking might be a convenient way to describe what she was doing but she'd clearly not thought 'I need to make the sound a dog makes here'.

All in all then a disappointment although I felt that this would be something of an anomaly in her long history of live shows. At the end she thanked us ll for coming and 'for being quiet and actually listening to the music'. Well, sorry Polly, but I was quiet because I was a little bored.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Pollyparish on the Front Row

For another week on iPlayer, PJ Harvey and John Parish talk to BBC Radio 4. Naturally they go through the motions that they've rolled out in any number of interviews over the last couple of weeks. The nugget here is that Polly had taken inspiration from WH Auden's 1 September 1939 for The Soldier, in which he asserts
We must love one another or die.
This makes some sense to me (in terms of the reference) given that Auden's poem concerns the brute, existential-modern reality of love
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

PJ Harvey and John Parish BBC 6 Session

Black Hearted Love and California as well as some stills here: "We'd both forgotten we'd made it [Black Hearted Love]... six or seven years ago"

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

A Woman A Man Walked By - REVIEW

It begins ambiguously. Black Hearted Love is renaissance PJ Harvey, a foursquare-but-syncopated rocking number that starts with a rich-but-anguished added-sixth chord and whose title is commensurately sweet-n-sour. Orchestrally the song is a throwback to Dance Hall and PJ's eponymous albums either side of it. The music rather more off-centre though and will characterise other later tracks of this album.

*the video of Black Hearted Love is also out, directed by YBA aristocracy Jake and Dinos Chapman - whilst it has some lovely photography it's not earth shatteringly original.

So to the rest of the album. 16,15,14 opens with an increasingly Led Zeppelinesque riff on a banjo and insistence. Repetition and insistence. For all Polly has rendered this a hide-n-seek episode with her opening lyrics, it quickly becomes a clearly-in-memory episode of pubescent epiphany. She has even taken the step of publishing the vocalising as 'oh, oh, oh' (etc.) in the liner notes.

This is Polly Harvey's aesthetic manor. It's possible that Daniel has taken advantage of Erika - there's a drama and threat with no laughter in a rainswept garden where the trees shake. But there's no clear sense of transgression; no clear idea of someone hurt or wronged, at least not right there and then. The retrospective regret is dead-eyed, unaccusing, forensic. It's classic Polly - erotic and dangerous, in moral terms stubbornly blank.

In Leaving California there's more American folk allusion with the saloon bar piano tremolo and metallic rhythm guitar. A synthetic haze descends on the production of the track as Polly starts to point her song. This is the opposite of Joni Mitchell's lovesong, blues of longing for the sunshine state sung from a Bleecker Street cafe or a European commune. This is a warped recreation of the old west (which chimes nicely with the recycled Victoriana styling that went with White Chalk, whence the piano and high, febrile vocal lines) - I think it's time to leave heralds an abrupt end. She's off.

So we arrive at one of the highlights of the disc. The Chair, like the best Pollyparish amalgams is a stream-of-consciousness that suggests a backstory, a drama. The de-centred harmony of Black Hearted Love is the DNA of this, once again, foursquare but rhythmically off-kilter track. It's like the chair which has prompted the song has an uneven .

Suddenly 16, 15, 14 becomes fissiparous. Are Erika and Daniel children playing making emotionally tempestuous discoveries about themselves? Or is Erika the mother, looking back at her helplessness at losing her child, transmuting the experience into a nightmare scenario, unable to turn to find him by the rules of the game, but trapped in the perpetual countdown, dictated by the rhythm of the song and the cyclical loop of the recurrent chorus. The sexual danger remains though. This is the Stygian glower of the Henry James of The Turn of The Screw: sex, childhood, the occult, death, unspoken and unspeakable moral transgression.

So to the reactive centre of the album, April and A Woman.../The Crow Knows Where. April is an irritating number, with an annoyingly unmodulated organ pattern, synthetic and demanding. Coherent only in patches, this stream-of-consciousness song is a delirious preamble to the crazed A Woman... which is the now statutory hysterique which PJ seems to need to fill out her albums. To me this is a raucous low-point of the album. It doesn't have the bite of Who The Fuck? from Uh Huh Her or similar predecessors. It's doubly crazy as it segues into a fun sequence of highly original carnival cinematique. The harmonic de-centring is maintained and we are dragged back into the consciousness of the album's trajectory.

If I couldn't help feeling that A Woman... failed where Portishead succeeded with the central tracks of Third (I know Portishead were pursuing an outward looking, existentially challenged post-punk industrial re-hash and that PJ is more introverted, more personal than that but the point stands when effectiveness is the aesthetic barometer) then the ukulele backed track The Soldier is at least as triumphant as Deep Water. Fragile and pointilist (with the tight-sounding plucked ukulele) Polly sounds like she's actually walking across the bones she's singing about, damaging and damaged.

Pig Will Not is the ingenuous expressionist stomper that A Woman... failed to be (inspired by Charles Baudelaire's 'The Rebel' the liner notes solemnly inform you). PJ Harvey is at her best when she's in the moment, when there's no sense of calculation.

Passionless, Pointless is perfumed with media. The early added-chord sequence sounds like a distorted sample from an 80s children's TV show. A lovesong, opulent, sensually omnipresent but fading. The perfect lead into the album's coda, Cracks in the Canvas a spoken - lucid - resolution to the pain, loss and confusion both hidden away and on show.

A Woman A Man Walked By is a terrific album, echt-PJ Harvey and all the better for a collaborative work. It's not astonishingly new but I think it fulfils their ambition not to repeat themselves. It's an old-school album as well, better played in one from top to toe.