Reviewed on this page:
Rid Of Me - 4-Track Demos - To Bring You My Love - Is This Desire? - Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea - Uh Huh Her - The Peel Sessions 1991-2004 - White Chalk - A Woman A Man Walked By
British singer/songwriter Polly Jean Harvey has charted an unpredictable course across the rock landscape since the early 90s, from the noisy hard rock trio that first brought her fame to a mellow solo album of piano ballads, with plenty of stops in between.
Harvey was initially lumped with Liz Phair, which was sloppy criticism based solely on their "ballsy alt-broad" personas: Harvey's about a million times more intense, honest and original. Which is not to say all her albums are great... her way with a melody is unremarkable, so the slow numbers can be dull and the loud tunes often sound the same.
And maybe it's me but it seems like she's always writing about water, legs and snakes.
I haven't been able to find this yet, but based on the tunes collected on Peel Sessions it's a wild ride, with key songs like "Oh My Lover" and "Water."
Rid Of Me (1993)
Harvey's breakthrough, recorded by Steve Albini when his homemade lo-fi esthetic seemed fresh and different. Nowadays his intentionally poor sound is just a gimmicky distraction, he leans too heavily on tricks like monotone background vocal chants (title track), and the ragged cover of Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" is impenetrable.
So it's the least interesting of Harvey's early records.
There's still a lot to be said for her venomous purging, though ("Legs"; "Hook"), and both versions of "Man-Size" (one with band, the other with strings) are a blast.
Plus, she gets a High Voltage/If You Want Blood You've Got It bonus point for using a previous album title as a song title ("Dry").
4-Track Demos (1993)
The raw demos from Rid Of Me, including several tunes that never made it to the album.
Most of the songs feature Harvey on highly amplified guitar and vocals, often accompanying herself with high-pitched backing vocals ("50Ft Queenie"), with no other musicians.
Without Albini's layers of dirt you can actually hear the compositions, and there's a lot of fascinating, edgy soul-baring:
"Hook," a powerhouse dirge with compelling lead guitar mangling; "Ecstasy," with primitive slide guitar and howled vocals; "Hardly Wait."
Though most of the disc is about as much fun as a root canal, "M-Bike" shows some humor, a Stones-style acoustic/electric singalong with handclaps, backing a tirade against somebody's motorbike.
Even when it's awful, the performance is passionate enough to keep your attention:
"Legs," a battle between ineptly scraped viola and Harvey's wailing; the unrelenting assault "Reeling"; the singsong "Snake"; the endless "Rub It 'Till It Bleeds."
But way too many songs feature repeated one-word choruses over two-chord changes ("Easy," "Yuri-G"), and the sluggish tempos ("Good Night") and screaming can make the disc hard to take.... Unless you're the kind of person who takes out your own stitches with your teeth, start with To Bring You My Love.
To Bring You My Love (1995)
You couldn't get more rough-edged than Harvey's first discs, so in retrospect it's no surprise she started getting mellower (the acoustic "C'mon Billy") and more professional. This disc is still plenty intense, though: the title track - ostensibly a love song - is terrifying, with the titular phrase delivered as a threat rather than a promise.
Meanwhile, "Teclo" is one of the few times she really pulled off a dirge, as the simple repeated licks build an extraordinary hypnotic effect, and "Down By The Water" is a bit punchier but similarly powerful.
Produced by Flood and John Parish; there are keyboards here and there, though the main wallop is still provided by Harvey's vocals and guitars ("Meet Za Monsta"; "Long Snake Moan").
When there are so many offhanded classics like "Send His Love To Me" and the weakest track is not bad, but merely underwritten ("I Think I'm A Mother"), you know you're listening to a classic album: everything you might listen to Harvey for is here, in spades. (DBW)
Dance Hall At Louse Point (John Parish & Polly Jean Harvey: 1996)
Parish wrote and performed the music; Harvey wrote and sang the words.
Is This Desire? (1998)
From the opening "Angelene," with its gentle piano underpinning, it's clear Harvey's taken another big step toward the mainstream. With such smooth sonics, the downtempo tunes are practically New Age ("Electric Light"), while even the hard rockers ("The Sky Lit Up," with its soprano refrain; "No Girl So Sweet") sound conventional and predictable. Some of the tunes still have some punch ("A Perfect Day Elise"), and the calmer meditations are decent ("My Beautiful Leah"), but there's nothing that'll make you sit up in your chair.
Despite nice moments (a lovely piano line in "The River"), a bland disappointment overall.
Produced by Harvey, Flood and Head.
Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea (2000)
A range of styles Harvey had explored previously, from screamed post-punk ("Kamikaze") through downbeat ballads ("Horses In My Dreams"), but with careful, layered production. Sometimes the slickness works: the blistering, 6/8 opener "Big Exit" benefits from Harvey's smooth upper range, and is one of the best songs of the year.
On the other hand, Harvey's tunes have always been simple harmonically, which the slick sonics often render dull ("Beautiful Feeling"; "This Mess We're In," with Thom Yorke's yodeling-on-Quaaludes vocals, curiously reminiscent of Chris Isaak). Tunes like the single "This Is Love" and "Good Fortune" are somewhere in between, straightforward rockers that aren't boring but aren't thrilling either.
Produced by Harvey, Mick (no relation) Harvey and Ellis - the threesome also played all the instruments.
Uh Huh Her (2004)
Self-produced, with Harvey playing most of the instruments (apart from Ellis's drums), and the sound is coarser, with a few songs as harsh as anything she's recorded ("Who The Fuck?").
On the other hand, there's calmer fare like "Shame" and the love song "You Come Through."
A few tracks blend both approaches, like "The Life & Death Of Mr. Badmouth," an uneasy mix of mellow piano and
distorted guitar vamping.
Style aside, the songwriting is iffy, as even the steady-rolling single "The Letter" is flat: it sounds like PJ Harvey all right, but it doesn't remind you why that's usually a good thing. The notable exception is the acoustic "The Desperate Kingdom Of Love," a much truer homage to Dylan than her 1993 cover of "Highway 61."
The Peel Sessions 1991-2004 (2006)
A compilations of performances on the BBC radio show, hastily recorded but not live (Harvey's backing vocals are overdubbed, for one). Apparently she recorded sixty tracks for nine appearances on the show, so this is a skimpy but worthy collection.
The four 1991 recordings are revelatory, showing that the band (particularly drummer Robert Ellis) was able to give Harvey solid, skillful backing without trying to tame her emotional rawness: "Oh My Lover," "Sheela-Na-Gig" and "Water" are so well done I'm almost afraid to test the studio originals against them.
The later stuff isn't as essential ("Beautiful Feeling"), but it's nice to hear rarities like the raucous 1993 soundtrack donation "Naked Cousin," and Harvey's at full strength whether she's in a noisy or quiet ("You Come Through") mood.
There's one cover, Willie Dixon's "Wang Dang Doodle," a party blues originally a hit for Howlin' Wolf: personally, I think John Lee Hooker's maimed, near-deranged intensity makes him, and not Wolf, Harvey's spiritual ancestor, but she does bring admirable depth to the tune without sucking all the joy out of it.
White Chalk (2007)
This time out, Harvey's gotten so quiet - plinking piano replacing guitar; whispered vocals replacing screaming - there's almost nothing going on ("Broken Harp"; "Grow Grow Grow"). The tunes are as unsophisticated as ever, but stripped of her former keening urgency they sound like clumsy lullabies ("The Devil"), or Muzak remakes of the Sex Pistols ("When Under Ether").
I'm sure the record is just as honest as her early work was, but it's far less interesting to a listener:
I'm no fan of Sting's later work, but at least when he grew up and lost his fire he had songwriting and vocal technique to fall back on. One hopes this is a detour, not a true change of direction.
Produced by Flood, Harvey and John Parish, who also played most of the instruments she didn't play; other musicians include Eric Drew Feldman on keyboards and Jim White on drums.
A Woman A Man Walked By (PJ Harvey & John Parish: 2009)
The same frayed-around-the-edges sound as Uh Huh Her, ranging from very sedate ("The Soldier" and "April" would have fit on White Chalk) to totally wild (the screamed bashfest "Pig Will Not").
But the songs are more distinctive ("Black Hearted Love" is a Sonic Youth-like mix of tuneful rock and abrasive noise; the slow, haunting "Passionless, Pointless"), with a generally pensive mood ("Cracks In The Canvas").
As on their 1996 collaboration, Harvey wrote and sang the words; Parish wrote and played the music - with help from Feldman, Giovanni Ferrario and Carla Azar - and he mixes styles like acoustic blues ("Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen") into the usual alt-rock mix (title track).
Though each track is solid, at album length I don't find the depth I hope for from Harvey: my initial thought was that this was much more impressive than Tori Amos's similarly dour 2009 disc, but the more I listen to each, the more they sound about even.
Let England Shake (2011)
Harvey takes on the state of the world and the nation, with one title after another telegraphing Message and Import ("The Glorious Land"; "All And Everyone"), but I'm damned if I can figure out what she's actually trying to say. Meanwhile, the tone is light and inconsequential, with jaunty singalongs ("The Words That Maketh Murder"), 60s style pop (title track), and chillout grooves, all topped with distanced, spaced-out vocals ("In The Dark Places"). An offputting - occasionally infuriating - combination, and I suppose another exploration of new territory for Harvey but to my ears it sounds like a retreat into pablum and platitudes. Given that the recent Reed/Metallica project was so critically reviled, I don't get why this work - with a similar resolute impenetrability and failed grasps at big statements - was considered one of the year's best.
Making a big exit?