1.23.2017

What the F**&K is Wrong with You?: PJ Harvey


I didn't listen to many female artists when I truly began to "listen" to music, i.e. actively searching and using my own money to buy a tape or CD of somebody that I wanted to listen to and absorb. Being a boy around the age of 13 in the suburbs, all of my music was male-centric, from The Beatles to Led Zeppelin to AC/DC to, of course, The Partland Brothers' Electric Honey.



Two things to mention: First CD I ever bought  after getting my first CD player 
(bargain bin), and article symbolism later.

I don't believe this is anything odd and imagine that most kids starting out their active-listener lives are going to associate to artists of their own sex. I never disliked women artists (certainly not those from the 50s , 60s, or the R&B 70s), but as boy who didn't understand anything about girls, buying their music never crossed the mind. I needed some sort of connection outside of the music itself, and all of us being man-boys was the easiest connection to make.

Eventually, once I hit college in I had realized that part of absorbing music is to encounter different perspectives, and that I could listen to Liz Phair talking about blowjobs and gender double standards even if I couldn't relate (but I could still sympathize!). I could enjoy hearing Justine Frischmann sing about needing Vaseline when you're stuck like glue because, damn, sex is awkward for all of us!


Absolutely listened to Elastica solely because of their music

While I began to listen to  more females artists, I'd say most hung around the indie or just general rock genre, so while lyrically they might be bringing some new ideas to my tiny musical end table, it was still food for thought that I had ingested before. I wasn't pooping out anything new to spark the imagination, so to speak. Perhaps, I was becoming musically constipated in the bowels my artistic expansion....

There wasn't - and still isn't- as much diversity in my female artists. I still lean towards rock/indie/punk women artists (Sleater-Kinney being my absolute #1 as a whole, not just a "girl band"), along with electro-pop leaning singers and Americana/folk. Still, despite what  I consider to be my own limits of female experience, I am surprised I didn't spend more time listening to PJ Harvey, as by all indications she should have been up my alley. When Witmer suggested that I take on To Bring You My Love, I jumped at the suggestion, kicking myself when he named the album that this wasn't something I already had on my playlist.

So, let's begin!




The Artist: PJ Harvey
The Album: To Bring You My Love
The Listener: Chris
The Presenter: Scott

(Side note: I actually thought I saw her in support of R.E.M in 1995, but it was actually Sonic Youth, I now realize).

Track 1: To Bring You My Love

Well, hello Track 1!  l love a good Track 1. Picking your first track for an album is the most important part of your track arrangement, so this bodes well. She's mentioned the desert, wandering, and Jesus in the first minute, so we are in fine shape for a rock album. This is my point: All musicians - regardless of sex -  will write about those three topics at some point in their career.

Man, I am kicking myself already on this- Harvey has great character in her voice and you buy in, and already much more raw than I expected, with a great mix of the guitar falling over the rest of the instruments. I feel like her bringing love might be a double suicide. And that tremolo at the end...Grade: A

Track 2: Meet Ze Monsta

It was fun to write that title, and I laughed, but before the track started I was also wondering if there was going to be any humor in the actual song, or it would be just really dark. Possibly being about abuse.

I initially thought I heard a little Robert Palmer with the drums, so that was a little fun. Her lyrics really are the prime example of relatability to any artist- I took it as her just having an intense night of sex, and she lays on middle-school euphemisms or just general words (like "head" and "coming") that you associate to sex even if they are not being used in that context, since I am still a middle-schooler (I taught middle school, so maybe that explains it. Ironically, I can't stand that age, but I loved teaching them. They are hilarious group of insecure dorks who all seem to discover 70s rock in 7th grade). Grade: B-

Track 3: Working for the Man

Now this track is what I was expecting Harvey to sound more like- spare drums, slight textures, a sense of something a little creepy going on. It's a nice change of pace from the first two tracks- breaking up the blues rock gives you time to breathe and get a sense of what she is fully bringing to the table. The song is a throwaway, but serves the album, so far. Lyrically, she is really seeming to push the idea of sexuality, or being under the spell of a man, as well as being powerless to God. "God of piston, god of steel/God is here behind the wheel". Grade: B+

Track 4: C'mon Billy

This was the first track that lyrically took on a true "woman's perspective", after three tracks that certainly could have been performed by anyone and made sense. Harvey is trying to get Billy to come back to her after she's had his son, who I assume he didn't know about, or perhaps left. The line towards the end "Damn thing went crazy" makes me think she killed the child, since she's referring to it as thing, perhaps keeping Billy from her. I also read into what seems like a trend, with Harvey serving to the will of man in her song, and I can't help but read it as commentary on the kind of life a woman leads when in this mindset. Grade: B

Track 5: Teclo 

So my kids were listening to Veggie Tales before I listened to this, and when I hit play I hadn't clicked on the actual track. Not what I was expecting. So it's taken me a few seconds to get my thoughts back in order.

This track is more in line with how I imagined PJ Harvey to be. She throws in a lot of character into her voice, as opposed to more straight-up blues wrath from earlier. The vocals ride on sparse minor chord riffs with feedback noodling to still give it that root anchor, but certainly goes into a more modern framework. The lyrics continue the obsession or longing to be with someone else, but I have no idea what "Teclo your death/Will send me to my grave" means. Isn't Teclo a convenience store in the UK? Grade: B-

Track 6: Long Snake Moan

Fuuuuuuuuuuck yeah! I don't care about the lyrics at all. I knew that once the first four seconds went by. I want this song played live when I go see her, preferably as an encore. I checked her set list recently and doesn't look like she's playing it. I'll need to tweet her this advice. Perfect blend of a dark, angry, sexy riff, power drums, droning organ, and that goddamn angry  voice. Grade: A

Track 7: Down by the Water

It's amazing how much MTV could effect what I wanted to listen to or who I wanted to pass on. I mean, I prided myself on watching 120 Minutes and MTV2, so I was hip to what was going on, but if an artists song didn't connect with me on those first couple of rotations, I was probably done with them. This is what happened with "Get Up" by Sleater-Kinney and it happened with Harvey and "Down by the Water". "Get Up" is one of my least favorite SK tracks, and the same certainly is true for "Water". It's not awful by any means- the buzzing synth bass is cool, I like the strings, and it has an identity, but it just...is. After 6 tracks in, where at least 5 really had some charge to them, this just drifts down the water past my raft, without me caring to go back and save it. In fact, it can take "Get Up" with it. Grade: C-

Track 8: I Think I'm a Mother

Is this a dirge? Seems like a dirge. I want to write a dirge and play it a funeral, and people would say "That's quite appropriate".

The lyrics are really confusing, so I won't read too much into them. But I have to wonder what the hell "You just roll me over/You give me a mother/A man if I love her" means. Is the narrator a woman? She wants to get pregnant with a mom? Or the man's a she if she loves her? A nice little riff- Harvey is absolutely a blues aficionado who does a nice job throwing in modern interpretations to these tried-and-true melodies, and that always sticks with me. This is a back-to-back run of two songs that don't stick much with you, though. Grade: B-

Track 9: Send His Love to Me

Hello, 90s acoustic guitar! It's the classic overproduced acoustic track, which seems counter-intuitive. I found the organ not quite fitting this song as we have heard in others, and I wasn't quite sold on her synth-and-strings middle section. I could certainly hear this with that out and have kept it with just the acoustic and percussion. Also, she misses the love of a guy, and wants Jesus to hear her!
Grade: C

Track 10: The Dancer

I've somewhat joked about Harvey's reference to God/Jesus in this album, but while I think a lot of time artists use biblical references, terms, or theological questions as an easy out to look deep and contemplative, it definitely is a theme for Harvey in this album- and maybe in a lot of her work. Lyrically this is by far the most direct track on the topic of God and the idea of being saved by Him. God even appears to send an angel to her to let her know he is there for her. This directness of the track also makes me want to look back at hear earlier tracks and see if the references to him might deal more with her relationship with God. It makes the idea of her constantly in want of him to be much deeper if she's seeking Him, and not a him. Musically it keeps a pretty constant melody throughout, so it's a showcase of her words, and it feels like she bearing her soul, with the music more of her background. Grade: B

Overall Grade: B-

This album really started strong, and even mid-way when I felt it started to lose it's luster, "Long Snake Moan" came an swallowed me whole. But that was the high-water mark, and the back end really started to fade. Lyrically she stuck with her themes, she has a hell of voice that can rip through and make a musically "meh" song really catch fire. While A B- might seem a little low, this is based on my first listen. I am going to listen to the album again, and update the overall grade if I feel different. More importantly, I am really going to go on and listen to some other albums of hers, as I hear a lot of elements of her music that made me curious about her output.

Great suggestion, Witmer! Let me know what you all think, and if there's another PJ Harvey album you recommend, let me know. I feel this would be a great 1-2 punch with Exile in Guyville.

-Chris


Bonus content! 

If had grabbed this Electric Honey in the bargain bin, my music life would have gone a much different direction in grade school (I would have at least listened to the album more than once). However it didn't come out until 13 years later when I was in college.

Remember, when doing the photo shoot, only one member should look directly at the camera.

1 comment:

Scott Witmer said...

Excellent review, Chris! I especially liked the "music as food/digestive process" analogy. But it's weird that you put food on your end table. That's how you get ants!