From ICA 63, written by Craig McAllister of the blog Plain or Pan. Craig has subsequently gone on to be the author of a very well-received book, The Perfect Reminder, on the writing and recording of I’ve Seen Everything, the second album from Trashcan Sinatras.
I’m no expert on Polly Jean Harvey. 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.
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!” I always had this faint idea from then on in that one day she’d go out with me, until she met that bastard Nick Cave. Oh well, her loss.
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.
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 who come 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.