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PJ Harvey & John Parish
A Woman A Man Walked By
Island Records
www.pjharvey.net


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 mayhem?

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 in 2000.

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.

-Gareth Bowles

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