Ah, summer; the sun shines, a gentle breeze tousles the leaves of
the trees, and flight of pelicans skims low over the glittering Pacific.
What better time to listen to some dark, creaky tales of murder and
Here's the second album from PJ Harvey, truly one of England's
greatest recent songwriters, and her sometime producer and longtime
collaborator John Parish, following on from 1996's Dance
Hall At Louse Point and, more recently, Polly Jean's latest album
White Chalk, which Parish co-produced and played on.
I haven't heard Harvey for a quite a while; I loved the energy, wit
and attitude of her first couple of records in the early '90s, then
renewed the fond acquaintance with To Bring You My Love in
1995 (Parish's first collaboration with Harvey, and probably my favourite
of her records) and Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea
As on Dance Hall
, Parish wrote and played all the music
on A Woman A Man..., while Harvey wrote and sings (and whispers,
screams and cackles) all the words. At first listen she comes across
as kind of of a female Nick Cave - in fact she appeared on
Cave's magnificent Murder Ballads, which must have the biggest
lyrical body count this side of an NWA record (and is another
great summer record to boot!) - but that doesn't do her dark, witty,
uniquely feminine songs nearly enough justice.
The grinding "Black Hearted Love" is a killer opener, as
Harvey spins a tale of obsession with a decidedly evil-sounding paramour,
while Parish layers squalling guitars atop a murky beat. I swear the
guitars in the chorus sound just like John McKay's work on
the first couple of Banshees albums; a sound I wasn't expecting
to hear again. Harvey sets the mood for the album with the line "When
you call out my name in rapture / I volunteer my soul for murder".
"Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen" changes the pace down, with
Parish mostly just playing a ukulele or two and Harvey desperately
counting down a spooky tale of something happening in a garden that's
so scary that even "The sun is leaving the scene, it took a look
and turned away". With Harvey's frenzied muttering and breathless
gasping near the end, this one disturbs more with what it suggests
than what it actually describes. "April" is another pretty
disturbing song, with Harvey singing like a 90-year-old over a tune
that's really quite pretty apart from the wheezy organ motif. She
could well be singing to a dead person here: "I don't know what
silence mean / It could mean anything. / Will you answer me ?"
The swelling, emotional build at the end of the song makes this one
a highlight of the album.
The centrepiece of the record is probably "A Woman A Man Walked
By / The Crow Knows Where All The Little Children Go". This is
the song that reminds me most of the aforementioned Nick Cave, but
is at the same time completely a Harvey song; Parish whips up a Bad
Seeds voodoo beat while Harvey alternately trills and snarls about
a "lily livered woman man" who, as usual, doesn't come out
of the song too well. Parish's extended piano/percussion instrumental
at the end of the song is really a stunning piece of music.
"Pig Will Not" sounds a lot like an early PJ Harvey song
from one of the first couple of albums, with a strident beat, crunching
electric guitar and multi-tracked Harveys chanting "I will not"
(and barking like a dog for added effect). The album winds down with
"Passionless, Pointless" - it's an almost conventional song,
a tale of a doomed love affair beguilingly sung over a cool, downbeat
melody - and "Cracks in the Canvas", a desperately sad tale
of life following a death.
Overall, this is a fine record that made me want to go back and revisit
the many delight's of Harvey's (and Parish's) back catalogue. Don't
be put off by my emphasis on the dark side of the record; all of Harvey's
work has beautiful melodies and wry humour alongside the menace and
melancholy. If you've liked her work in the past or just want something
a bit different from the usual summer fare, give this one a try.
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