Tuesday, August 7, 2012

another musician post: P.J Harvey

About a year ago I was introduced to P.J Harvey's Let England Shake and ever since I've been totally hooked on her music. The interesting thing about Polly J. is that she's a singer/songwriter with a wide variety of styles embedded in her music with a wide variety of influences. Some of her earlier music shows her punk influences and the harshness and raw emotional quality of Polly's singing voice works perfectly for punk and has a very Patti Smith like quality to it. For an example of what I mean here's P.J Harvey performing a rolling stones cover with Bjork. Before I heard this song I thought P.J Harvey and Bjork would blend strangely because Bjork's voice is the opposite of that and goes up and down in a playful like quality that resembles a kid playing a game of tag. That opposition in itself was perfect and what it does instead is pull P.J's voice into that metaphorical game of tag:
For those of you who are unfamiliar with P.J Harvey and/or Bjork the one on guitar is P.J Harvey and the one on keyboards singing back-up is Bjork. What freaks me out every time I see this video is the gigantic height difference and how Bjork makes P.J look like a giant but, now I'm just going off topic. Right...the Patti Smith P.J Harvey comparison thing. When P.J plays a guitar and sings in that low alto or tenor voice and barks out every lyric I can't help but be reminded of the hint of Patti Smith in her more music. If you listen to this song you'll see the similarities. So as a comparison here's a video of Patti Smith's song "Horses":
Honestly that's an influence to be proud of but, the problem is I haven't talked about P.J as a songwriter yet. She shines as a songwriter from White Chalk onwards when her voice gets rawer and more goose bump inducing, the songs get stronger, and P.J starts experimenting with more instruments. The one exception though is her phenomenal song, Down By The Water told from the perspective of a mother who has murdered her own child (I know sounds like an awful story to listen to even in the form of a song) although P.J excels at humanizing the character that she is singing the song from the perspective of by including lyrics that show the remorse. Unfortunately the original takes away from that because for some reason she chooses to perform it with a tone of attitude that resembles the creepy characters that Nick Cave depicts on his murder ballads album but, the one thing it succeeds at is capturing the chilling and uneasy nature of the song:
More recently P.J Harvey toned down the attitude for this song and focused on the remorse aspect of it and did a solo acoustic performance. This ability to bring out raw vulnerability  in her music is what made her music so powerful from her album White Chalk onwards and made Let England Shake a huge success:
Speaking of White Chalk this performance style seems to be more of a focus and there's a pattern of this in many of P.J Harvey's more recent music.For instance we find this in the title track for the album, White Chalk where Polly's voice echoes the words of a memory in a manner that resembles a ghost like chill as the piano plays in the background and her voice silently delivers the lyrics into a microphone that makes the sound of her voice creep up into your ears in the form of an echo:
After White Chalk there was a transformation from songs about the personal that look inwards to songs that look outwards and focus on more political things that are happening and have happened over and over again. The great thing is that this raw emotion could be transformed to make music for Let England Shake on how the atrocities of war have affected people and environments that played a major part in these conflicts. What makes the album worth listening to is that it's not anti-war and it's not pro-war it just takes those stories of war and leaves it up to the listener to make up their own mind. The songs are constructed like pop songs that, if your paying no attention to the lyrics are a pleasant to listen to in fact many of the most joyful songs on the album come across as ironic in a sense that the lyrics are about terrible and graphic parts of war but in the background is this pleasant tune. One of the highlights of the album doesn't quite reflect that joyful pleasant quality of some the songs on the album in fact it's quite unsettling. It's called "On Battleship Hill" and is about the legacy of the battle of Galipoli and how it affects the place where it took place and it's survivors many years after it happened. The setting is brought alive and treated like a person almost as if the only explanation is that somehow this is an incident where "cruel nature has won again". I wrote a scene based on it for one of university summer courses simply because there's so much storytelling that can be done based on this song:
P.J Harvey is a creatively dynamic, multi-talented musician/songwriter that's been making music since the 90s. Recently she won album of the year for Let England Shake and she seems so far from stopping in fact, this album seems to be the peak of her career.

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