KamerTunesBlog

Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time

PJ HARVEY Part 1 – Thoughts On An Artist / The Trio Years

When PJ Harvey arrived on the music scene in the early ‘90s, I had absolutely no interest in a noisy trio fronted by a seemingly angry, venom-spewing, guitar-playing young English woman. My tastes were pretty varied at that point, but alternative (with or without a PJ Harvey Photo (circa 1992)capital “A”) music was not something I responded to. Over the years I’ve come around to a lot of artists from that era, but it wasn’t until around 2003/2004 that I actually listened to PJ Harvey. Previously I had only seen a couple of her videos and they never made me want to buy her records. Then I read an interesting interview with Harvey in a British music magazine (probably Mojo), which peaked my interest, so I asked a friend to make me a CD compilation of her best songs. After giving that near-perfect 13-track CD several listens, I became enough of a fan to check out her back catalog (which by that time consisted of 6-7 albums). While no individual album stood out as a masterpiece, I enjoyed the fact that she constantly changed her sound & appearance but always managed to sound distinctly like herself. The first new album released after I became a fan was 2007’s White Chalk, a drastic departure even for her. Currently I think it’s my favorite of her albums, although that could change after revisiting her catalog over the next couple of weeks. One thing is certain: over the course of her eight studio albums (plus a collection of home demos and another disc of radio sessions), I will finally become familiar with the work of a singular talent who rarely if ever repeats herself.

I knew that her first couple of albums were recorded as a trio with Polly Jean Harvey on vocals & guitar, Stephen Vaughan on bass and Robert Ellis on drums & backing vocals, but PJ Harvey - Dryuntil this past week I wasn’t aware that they were actually a band called PJ Harvey, as opposed to a solo artist with her backing band. It was a smart move on her part, as she was able to continue as a solo artist under the same name after the trio disbanded. Recorded for independent label Too Pure and later reissued through Island Records, the band’s debut album, Dry (1992), is a tour-de-force with plenty of highlights. The term that kept coming to mind as I played it throughout the week is “controlled intensity.” “Oh My Lover” is a powerful way to begin a recording career, with a great dirty guitar tone and a slow-build arrangement. She knows what she wants from relationships, and makes it clear from the start that she’s no victim (“Don’t you know it’s alright? You can love her and you can love me at the same time.”). “O Stella” has a loping, slightly funky groove when the band joins in, with some excellent, understated drumming. I love the way she sings “Gooo-o-ooold.” “Dress” is a driving rocker with heavy bass & tom toms, and a cool hook at “If you put it on, if you put it on.” My favorite song on the album, and the song I most associate with PJ Harvey, is “Sheela-Na-Gig,” which begins subdued with chugging guitars, but eventually features snarling guitar and an all-around killer arrangement. It’s chock full of hooks, most notably the chorus (“Sheela-Na-Gig, Sheela-Na-Gi-IG, you exhibitionist”) and the repeated phrase “Gonna wash that man right out of my hair.”

[PJ Harvey – “Sheela-Na-Gig”]

“Hair” is moody and menacing, with a great 5/4 rhythm. Lyrically she sounds like a stalker, but that makes it intense and memorable. “Joe” is probably the fastest song on the album, with a driving 6/8 groove that matches early Smashing Pumpkins for aggression. Lyrically & melodically, there wasn’t much for me here, but it’s all about the rhythm section, especially Ellis’ drumming. “Water” returns to 5/4 time but feels completely different from “Hair.” In its sparse arrangement I hear similarities to Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire,” and I love her climbing vocal at “Waaaaaater.” The “controlled intensity” I mentioned above certainly applies to “Victory.” I really enjoyed the syncopated rhythm, bluesy slide guitar, and the way she sings “Vic-to-RY.” “Plants And Rags” includes slow strummed acoustic guitar (by Mike Paine), and the off-kilter sound of the cello shows a clear Velvet Underground influence. “Fountain” is an intense breakup song (“Stand under fountain, cool skin, wash clean, wash him from me”) with great dynamics and nice harmonies at the end. This is really a fantastic debut album, and one of the things that I’ve probably overlooked in the past (which I won’t do anymore) is just how good a guitar player Harvey is. I can hear the deep blues influence, but she’s coming from other angles as well. I’m very interested to discover how her playing style develops over the course of her career.

The trio returned a year later with Rid Of Me (1993), this time enlisting Steve Albini to produce. He’s probably best known for working with Nirvana on their final studio album, PJ Harvey - Rid Of MeIn Utero (although he’s also a recording artist in his own right, and has produced & engineered hundreds of albums by countless artists), and his production style seems to be about capturing the raw sounds of the artist rather than putting some kind of sonic fingerprint on the music like so many producers do, as well as encouraging the artist to experiment with their voices and instrumentation. This album isn’t as immediately captivating as its predecessor, but at least half of its 14 songs are as strong as anything on Dry. “Missed” has an offbeat waltz feel, and I like how her voice moves from normal to falsetto and back. There’s a light drumbeat with excellent cymbal work, and it’s most raw and loud at “No I’ve missed him.” “Legs” begins like an overture, with fast guitar strumming and Harvey singing “Ohhhhh, you’re divine.” Her voice is fuller & huskier, even though she sounds like someone going through a breakdown (“I might as well be dead but I could kill you instead”). “Hook” is sludgy & grungy, with dirty guitars, a deep drum sound and a distorted effect on her vocals. Lyrically, it’s about a woman attached to the wrong man, and she feels stuck (“I was blind, I was lame, I was nothing ‘til you came”; “Lord he hooked me, fish hook & line”). The highlight of this album has to be “50Ft Queenie,” a swampy blues tune with Harvey showing a lyrical bravado that might reflect how she feels when she’s on stage. I especially love the falsetto vocals (with harmony) at “Glory, glory, lay it all on me…”

“Yuri-G” is a super-catchy song (“Yeah, I wish I was Yuri-G”) with distorted vocals. Although the titular character is a woman, I wonder if this is some sort of tribute to Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, especially with references to “Luna” and “moon.” “Ecstasy” is the biggest-sounding song on the album, like it was meant to be performed in arenas & stadiums. Her guitar playing is especially ferocious. The remainder of the album has some good moments, and there are probably fans who consider this her best work, but more often than not I was turned off by the raw production. “Rid Of Me” casts Harvey as the ex-girlfriend who won’t go away (“You’re not rid of me”), and includes the memorable “Lick my legs, I’m on fire, Lick my legs of desire” refrain. “Man-Size” appears twice, first as “Man-Size Sextet” with a dissonant string arrangement, and then as a more typical quiet-loud-quiet trio arrangement. Neither version is terribly catchy, but they’re both striking in their own ways. Dry is clearly my favorite of the two “trio” albums, but I can’t overlook the 7-8 truly memorable songs on Rid Of Me. These records are a great back-to-back listen. The biggest disappointment is that they’re the only albums recorded by this trio, since the rhythm section complemented Harvey’s songwriting so well. But all good things must end, and PJ Harvey (the woman) continued on her own.

PJ Harvey - 4-Track DemosBefore recording her first studio album as a solo artist, Harvey released 4-Track Demos (1993), a collection of her home recordings that includes 8 songs that appeared on Rid Of Me plus 6 previously unreleased tracks. Of the songs we’ve already heard, “Ecstasy” probably benefits the most from this stripped-back arrangement. It’s a powerful performance with some dirty slide guitar that reminds me of Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time Of Dying.” “Hook” doesn’t outstrip the studio version but it’s still stomping fun with a mammoth guitar sound. It also features nice organ splashes. It’s nice to hear acoustic guitar on “50Ft Queenie,” which is then joined by overdubbed electric guitar. This version is definitely the equal of its studio counterpart. “Rub ‘Til It Bleeds,” a song from Rid Of Me that I didn’t mention above, works much better in this scaled back but still intense arrangement. Also, “Yuri-G” comes across fully formed even though it’s simply vocals and guitar. Of the six new songs, “Goodnight” is the cream of the crop. It’s dark and moody, with surprisingly deep vocals and a sinister Jimmy Page-esque guitar riff. Without a doubt it’s one of my favorite songs from this batch of albums.

[PJ Harvey – “Goodnight”]

“Reeling” has choppy guitars, distorted vocals, and the repeated high-pitched “reelin’” refrain, while the phrase “Take me to the moon-a” puts her in Tom Waits territory. “Easy” is a simple song with a repeated 7-note guitar pattern and an excellent chorus, as she sings “Ea-sy” over loud guitars and “ha” vocal stabs. “Hardly Wait” is cool, moody & filled with angst. Although it could’ve fit on either of her previous albums, it needed to be fleshed out with additional instruments. “M-Bike” chugs along with some effective mood shifts, and lyrics about her man loving his motorcycle more than her (“Break her, break me, get rid of that goddamned machine”). 4-Track Demos is geared more to existing fans than newcomers. I don’t think I would’ve appreciated these early versions nearly as much had I not spent so much time with the first two albums. Although it may not be essential, “Goodnight” alone is worth the price of admission.

PJ Harvey Photo (from Rid Of Me CD)

I don’t know her subsequent albums that well…yet…but I do know that her sound morphs and evolves. These early releases, though, showcase a fully formed, fertile musical mind, which is especially noteworthy considering she was still in her early-20s when they were recorded. I look forward to hearing what long-time fans think of this portion of her catalog. I imagine there are many people who lost interest after the trio split up, while others probably came on board after this. Feel free to share your thoughts in the Comments section, and stay tuned for my next post where I’ll discuss the three albums that followed.

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38 comments on “PJ HARVEY Part 1 – Thoughts On An Artist / The Trio Years

  1. mikeladano
    December 15, 2012

    Like you I wasn’t into this kind of music in the 90’s. But I haven’t really given her a chance since. Maybe I should.

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    • Mike, you seem to be like me and have pretty diverse tastes, so I’m sure you would like some of her stuff. If you have the time, check out the clips I included in this post. “Goodnight” is such a powerful track that it’s hard to believe it was a home demo.

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  2. Lewis Johnston
    December 17, 2012

    A most enjoyable and informative read. For me what attracted me to her music was the passion and fire in her playing, which is something I do not think she will ever lose. Her music stands out as well because of the time signatures, combining those two factors makes her for me a winner. I also enjoy the fact that she reinvents herself with each new release. This is a lesson that some of the more commercial or mainstream artists could learn. For me the mark of a great artist is to take chances and that is something Harvey certainly does. She does test her audience but I think that is a good thing.

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    • Hi Lewis. You’re so right abut the passion & fire in her playing. I know she eventually channels that in different ways (instead of just showcasing her fierce guitar playing), but the fact that she doesn’t repeat herself makes for a diverse catalog of music. I’m glad you pointed out the time signatures, which is a big reason why so many of the songs on the albums I wrote about here made such an impact on me. I was really surprised to hear two songs in 5/4 time (I could be off about the specific time signature, but I know they’re both “in 5 time”). Other than jazz musicians, who does that…and makes it sound so good?

      I’ve already started listening to her next three albums, which are definitely different than the first three. I’m looking forward to having these songs seep into my brain this week.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on her work.

      Best…
      Rich

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  3. mikeladano
    December 19, 2012

    I’m been listening to your sound clips that you posted. She seems to have a unique vocal style. I like everything you posted. Good stuff!

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    • Thanks, Mike. Glad you like the clips. She definitely has a distinct voice. I wasn’t a fan initially, but her uniqueness is what eventually won me over. Hopefully you’ll find more to like throughout the rest of her catalog.

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      • mikeladano
        December 19, 2012

        I will continue to explore. When you get to be up there in years like me (cough) you tend to like unique artists — anything different from what you’ve heard already!

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      • As someone who’s further up there in years (cough…wheeze), I completely agree. I still enjoy hearing new artists adding their own touches to styles I’ve always loved (like so many modern prog bands), but I get more excited by artists breaking boundaries and taking me to places I haven’t been before.

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      • mikeladano
        December 19, 2012

        Indeed, and the cool thing is, even as we get older, we uncover a multitude of artists to explore. We’ll never get tired of music.

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      • Well said, Mike. Not a day has gone by in my life when I wasn’t excited about something related to music, whether it was choosing what to listen to, waiting for a new CD to arrive in the mail, or creating music with various bands I’ve been in. As long as I keep my hearing, it’s something I’ll continue to be excited about forever.

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      • mikeladano
        December 19, 2012

        It’s funny in a way, in our daily lives, running into people who don’t love music as much as we do. I remember once I was at work and my boss was going to take me out to lunch. “Do you have plans?” I said, “Yeah, I’m heading to Walmart to buy the new Helix album. It’s a Walmart exclusive.” He totally didn’t get it, at all.

        But folks like us get it. I’m the first guy to pre-order something I’m excited about.

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      • Exactly. I also find it hard to imagine being one of those people who used to love music, but stopped being interested in anything new 20-30 years ago. They may still obsess over certain artists and continue to buy their albums, but they’re also the first to say, “there hasn’t been a good new band since the ’80s.” We know that’s not the case, of course, but in some ways I envy them for all the money they’ve saved over the years. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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      • mikeladano
        December 19, 2012

        My best buddy growing up was like that. We were both into music big time. We were in it together. He got me into so many bands. He bought the magazines, so I bought the magazines. He bought the tapes, so I bought the tapes. Then after college he completely lost interest. He doesn’t listen to any music anymore. He has 4 kids now, but I know other people with 4 kids who are still passionate about music. I’m not sure how it changes?

        Like many kids, I was into the image as well, the cool hair, the cool clothes, the cool poses with the guitar, and that you do outgrow. But the music stayed with me. Why it didn’t stay with him, I really don’t know.

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      • I guess everyone has a limit on their youthful obsessions. As much as I still enjoy baseball & football and root for the same teams I’ve liked since I was a kid, I don’t have the same passion I did when I was 20…although I still get worked up about it during the season even if I no longer lose sleep when my teams lose. I guess it’s the same for people who loved music when they were younger but just didn’t have the patience to keep up with it. I suppose it’s not worth questioning it, since we’re both obviously happy with our music-centered lives.

        I was just going through my list of top albums of 2012, which I’m narrowing down and will post sometime next week. I’m always amazed at the number of new (and new-to-me) albums I get every year, and how many of them blow me away. Even with all the albums I revisit for the blog, which takes up a lot of my time, I still find the time to enjoy so much other music…and still it’s not enough.

        Anyway, we’re obviously on the same page with this, as usual.

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      • mikeladano
        December 20, 2012

        Where I differ slightly is that I tend to buy a lot of reissues, and new releases by old bands. Not so much new releases by new bands, since I have quit the store. That is one thing I would like to change. It has been 5 years since I quit the store and time enough to start looking at new bands again! For a while I was just digging into the music I loved that I wasn’t allowed to play at work. Time to change that.

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      • That’s not much of a difference, of course. We’re both interested in exposing ourselves to as much “new” music as possible, even if it’s not always a new artist. The bulk of my purchases throughout the year are reissues, box sets, new releases by artists I already like and albums/compilations by artists I haven’t previously checked out. The amount of new artists I check out is pretty small, mostly due to time constraints and not because “there’s no good new music.”

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      • mikeladano
        December 20, 2012

        Without being a curmudgeon, I think there’s truth to that. I like music made the old fashioned way — with instruments. When I hear a lot of programming it usually turns me right off. Having said that, I like much of what I have heard from The Black Keys and I think that is one band I would like to explore in the new year. “Little Black Submarines” is a good tune. I know the drummer produced the new Sheepdogs record, and I like those guys too.

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      • The Black Keys are an excellent band. I have their whole back catalog, as well as Dan Auerbach’s excellent solo album (on glorious-sounding vinyl). I’ll revisit their albums at some point, but there are too many other artists ahead of them on my list. I usually agree with you about the programming thing, but it really depends on the artist. No curmudgeons here…just obsessive music nerds. Stand proud!

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      • mikeladano
        December 20, 2012

        Yeah, I should have modified that programming comment because I do like Nine Inch Nails and have most of their stuff.

        Looks like I need some Black Keys in the new year! May as well start with El Camino.

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      • El Camino is as good an entry point into the Black Keys’ catalog. They’ve been pretty consistent, so if you like that one I would recommend working your way backwards through their albums.

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      • mikeladano
        December 21, 2012

        Good to know!

        Now, me being the collector, you know I’ll want to see if there is a version available with bonus tracks. Slippery slope…

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      • Is Slippery Slope the name of your medical condition? (insert smiley face here)

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      • mikeladano
        December 21, 2012

        It should be Rich!

        I was recently diagnosed with OCD but really in a lot of ways I’ve always known this. That’s the best explanation for my collection!

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      • I assume that stands for Organized Collection Display, right?

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      • mikeladano
        December 21, 2012

        I wish. I’ve been really lazy with my filing lately. During the Christmas break I want to get everything filed again. I haven’t filed anything I’ve bought in the last year.

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      • Yikes. That’s the only thing I’m super-compulsive about. I’ve probably mentioned this before, but whenever I get anything new it goes in the “to be played” pile. I need to listen to it at least twice (sometimes including once on my MP3 player) at which point it gets added to my Excel spreadsheet list and filed in the collection. I went a few years in th ’90s when I ran out of room and had CDs unsorted all over the place, and it was awful. I feel your pain.

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      • mikeladano
        December 21, 2012

        That’s where I am now — CD’s unsorted because I’m out of space. So I may have to pull all my compilations out and file them in a box or something. I don’t know.

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      • It’ll be okay. I really do feel your pain. As long as you have access to your music, even if it’s sometimes hard to get to it, you’re doing good. I have friends who moved years ago and never got to unpack their CDs from the moving boxes. They just listen to music online. Yikes…like that’s the same thing!

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      • mikeladano
        December 21, 2012

        Yeah my buddy the DJ still hasn’t unpacked and it’s been a couple years. But in his defense, they keep popping out kids. 4 now. So I can get why he has no room to unpack at the moment!

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  4. Pingback: KamerTunesBlog Year In Review 2012 | KamerTunesBlog

  5. Brian
    January 29, 2013

    Rich- “Dry” and “Rid Of Me” are neck and neck for my two favorite PJ albums. Love em both. “Rid Of Me” is I’m forced to choose. LOVE the song “Dry” off of “Rid Of Me” too.

    Like

    • Hi Brian. As usual, our tastes overlap but there’s also some differences. If I had to choose between Dry and Rid Of Me, my vote would be cast for Dry. Rid Of Me has a few songs that didn’t go anywhere for me, although the best songs on that album are as good as anything from Dry. Not that we need to pick a favorite when there’s so much good music to enjoy on both.

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  6. stephen1001
    May 30, 2013

    I suspected as a drummer you’d approve of Dry’s rhythms, that was a highlight for me as well! Rid of Me’s also in the 1001 list & I’ve been listening to In Utero this week – I’m interested to see how Albini’s work (from the same year) sounds with Ms. Harvey.

    Like

    • I was absolutely impressed with the drumming on Dry. That band was super tight and deceptively great. Albini definitely brings a rawness to everything I’ve heard from him. Depending on the artist, that can be a good or bad thing. I certainly didn’t like Rid Of Me as much as Dry, although the half of that album I did like was phenomenal. As for Nirvana, I wasn’t much of a fan, but I responded a lot more to In Utero than Nevermind initially. “Rape Me” and “Pennyroyal Tea” are probably my two favorite Nirvana songs.

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      • stephen1001
        May 30, 2013

        Interesting – I had those 2 songs as the extremes on In Utero. I felt Rape Me was treading water (the progression felt too close to Teen Spirit) but agreed that Pennyroyal Tea was perhaps their finest in the catalogue!

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      • I think I gravitated towards “Rape Me” because it was being unfairly judged as misogynistic by their detractors due its title, when it seemed to be about their response to instant fame. I guess that made me want to defend it, and I still really like its rawness.

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  7. stephen1001
    June 1, 2013

    I hadn’t seen it from that perspective. Admittedly, I didn’t pay much attention to the lyrics with Nirvana – as a guitar player/singer, I think I always hear the chord progressions & vocal melodies first. The chord pattern/rhythm of Rape Me came off as derivative but I hadn’t thought about the lyrics being another example of Kurt’s struggle with the group’s massive commercial success. Interesting take on the song!

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    • Ironically, I’m not normally a lyrics guy. I tend to react to the music first, and only when lyrics are particularly good or bad to I take notice. In the case of “Rape Me,” I was reading a lot of negative reviews at the time, which caused me to pay attention to the lyrics, and it seemed like people were misinterpreting the song because of the title. Of course, I could be wrong, but that’s what I got out of it.

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