Thursday, 2 April 2009

Review: A Woman A Man Walked By, by PJ Harvey and John Parish

So, you've seen the video for 'Black Hearted Love'? Good, innit?

But what about the album?

It's called A Woman, A Man, Walked By, and it was released on Monday. PJH's site altruistically offers a list of emporia in which you can snaffle it up.

Something New, Or More Of The Same?

PJH is all about reinvention. Few artists (and extraordinarily few with a comparably high profile) have explored so rich an array of voices and identities over the course of their career. How much of a change is A Woman, A Man, Walked By, relative to what's gone before?

Like White Chalk, there is a fascination with textures (meaning the combination of instruments and sounds at any one time) and timbres (meaning the tones and sonic characteristics of each individual instrument or sound). And also like White Chalk, there's a lot of percussion going on, but hardly ever courtesy of a drum kit. PJH and John Parish seem to favour not only acoustic, minimalist percussion (tambourines, hand drums and the like), but also percussive instrumentation and production.

So guitars are real rhythm instruments – woody and brittle or diced, metallic, rattlingly hacked ... And they're equalised in such a way as to accentuate the attack of each strum or pick – so that the songs drive without having their detail obscured by tub-thumping.

Guitars figure centrally, then. Nevertheless they're not perhaps as prominent or as open-throttled as the single 'Black Hearted Love' might've led us to expect. There's not as much uncomplicated rocking out as I'd expected having heard the single, with its expansive riffing and bluesy crunch – but there's lots of sonic inventiveness.

Not that I want y'all to think that this is a delicate, subtle record.

It's not. Fourth track 'Chair', for instance, is unsettlingly rootless, trip-hop-laced, oscillating between squally, punctuative rock onslaughts and eerily warbling pipe-organ-like sounds ... With its sudden, vertiginous transitions, the overall effect is something akin to Radiohead's 'Trans-Atlantic Drawl' [youtube] – a song (incidentally) that's criminally neglected thanks to its obscure B-side status, but actually one of the best – most interesting – things they've written.

(Radiohead's has way more key changes, though ...)

[Hey – why don't you just download PJ Harvey's 'Chair' as an mp3 and see what you make of it?]

Vocally – as ever – PJH is ventriloquistic. In 'April', she takes on the voice of a wheezy old soul singer – which, in combination with the rotary organ accompaniment, gives the song a tawdry, jaded, weary quality – until it soars to its impassioned, cracked climax, before subsiding again.

Then, in closing 'Cracks In The Canvas', she's doing the poetry-set-to-music thing that's so cringeworthy in the hands of those like George Pringle []. It's not cringeworthy here – though she's still not quite as good at it as Jarvis Cocker (compare Pulp's superb 'David's Last Summer' [ link]).

'Passionless, Pointless' is all delay-soaked melancholy and hypnotic tremolo – but perhaps a little directionless (a nice unexpected key-change would've made it for me. But Heavy Soil is a shameless courtesan in the harem of the unexpected key-change, as you'll know by now).

Some of the unflinchingly aggressive, testosteroney delivery – which can veer into unpleasant territory, I presume deliberately – recalls Uh Huh Her (to my mind, her least successful album). I'm thinking of 'Pig Will Not' (which actually contains distorted vocal frequencies harsh enough to make me wince) and the brawling, sneering vocal assault of the album's title track. I have little doubt that it's intelligent as opposed to mindless shape-shifting and histrionics – and (boy) it certainly has an effect – but it's not necessarily easy or pleasant to listen to.

(... But is that what we come to PJH for? Methinks not.)

There is certainly a Kid A quality to this record in its combined austerity and pugnacious defiance. I'd link it, too, to Portishead's brilliant Third (indeed, songs such as 'The Soldier' tap into very similar sonic territories – washed-out, desaturated operating-room-folk). While White Chalk was veiled, subtle, shimmering, sunbleached, dignified, A Woman, A Man, Walked By is neurotically restless, by turns demandingly hysterical and obscurely reticent.

Put it all together then, Heavy Soil. It's what we pay you for.

(Eh? You pay me?)

Well, we're swinging from the excesses of Uh Huh Her to the otherwordliness of White Chalk, all imbued with something of the spirit of To Bring You My Love. There's a kind of rabidness –a glassy-eyed, bolshy unpredictability to the whole thing – and the album certainly feels (at times) as close to the edge as did Rid Of Me.

Musically, though, it meanders a little at times. Part of its nature (the artistic conception behind it, I'd hazard) is to be far less consistent, less encapsulated-in-amber, than White Chalk. It sets out to do something quite different – something far more intrusive; active, not passive. And the music successfully sets my head spinning. As might a bloke who clocks me round the bonce with a baseball bat, before tenderly kneeling at my side and reciting Gerard Manley Hopkins.

But if I'm judging the album as a deliberately provocative piece of art, I think it falls slightly short of excellence. At times, it's treading water. Not often, perhaps. But enough occasionally to let up on the bewilderment and to allow me to relax into a degree of familiarity.

In a way that albums such as the aforementioned Third (and, for that matter, Kid A) do not.

I suppose what I'm saying is, if PJH and John Parish are going to go for the unpredictably neurotic, they have to make sure it doesn't slip. And occasionally, it does. And, whatever they say, there are times on this record at which I feel I could be listening to an outtake from earlier album recording sessions. 'The Soldier' – to pick one song – could be a track on White Chalk.

... And, curiously, it's songs like the superb, soaring, matt-laminated 'Black Hearted Love' (certainly one of the album's most enjoyable) that jar in the context of the more aggressive, uncompromising stuff.

It's a good album, definitely. But (funnily enough, given the raw immediacy of some of the material) I don't think it's been pushed quite hard enough in places to be entirely what it wants to be.

As ever, the mp3 is provided in order that you may appraise. If said appraisal is positive, Heavy Soil urges you to position your money in a similar position to your mouth and buy the album.

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