Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Let England Shake - PJ Harvey

PJ Harvey was my introduction to women who rock. Before her, my music collection was filled with angry young men but I found her after the sudden realization that there was a whole side of rock music that I was missing out on.

Growing up in a small town meant ridiculously generic radio; the only female voices it featured were on the oldies stations or the R&B, Pop formats. So one day I asked myself why don't I listen more music by women? The question led me to the used section of my town's only record store, now closed - of course, where I found the gateway drug to women's rock. PJ Harvey's 1993 album Rid of Me.

It was different than anything I had listened to before. Her voice is nothing like those cookie-cutter tones you hear in popular music: sometimes it's piercing, abrasive and others it's just a beautiful melody. Then there's her tone: there's anger, lust, and fear. The music, produced by Shellac's Steve Albini, is raw and works perfectly around Harvey's vocal gymnastics.

It took me sometime to warm up to it and even then I couldn't really understand it, which is why - in one of my many musical regrets - I sold it a few years later. I miss the newness of it everytime I listened to it and how shaken I felt after each track. Sadly, I never really kept up with PJ Harvey anymore after that. I guess I was drawn to other artists at the time but that album left deep impression.

Now almost ten years since I listened to Rid of Me, I was drawn back to Harvey. Her critically acclaimed album Let England Shake was one of the few new vinyl releases in a used music store in Cape Coral, Rainbow Records. The place mainly sells used CDs and vinyl but every once in a while the owner gets new releases in. I curious about it so I had to pick it up. I'm glad I did.

Kicking off with a rollicking xylophone beat, something like an out-of-control carousel, the album is a diverse run through England's war history, from World War I through Iraq. The first song though is pure joy and Harvey's haunting voice howls amid an amusement park atmosphere. It's the jolly war campaign song though the lyrics are far from cheery.

A bugle horn is heard through out the third song "The Glorious Land" a propaganda song that could have fit just as well as in the Third Reich. It's followed by the soldier's song, a catchy number titled "The Words That Maketh Murder" filled with devastating war images dressed in a light little rock song that will have you singing the title soon after the needle stops. This juxtaposition between lyrics detailing the deadly ramifications of war and music that never sounds dour or oppressive continues throughout the album, with wonderful results, except for one heart-rending cut.

"England" is a simple yet devastating. The song is mainly Harvey's voice and a guitar with a few other acoustic instruments. In the background, and this is an example of how great the use of samples is in the album, is the voice of Arabic singer Said El Kurdi joining Harvey's voice, which sounds like it's coming from the beyond the grave. It's one of the most affecting moments in the album, as post-battle images emerge and a chilling voice says "England, is all, to which I cling."

One of the year's best.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

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