For this month's Band of the Month, we are back in the 90s and 00s, this time for one of the acts that brought me back into contemporary music in the late 90s: PJ Harvey.
I don't remember exactly when this happened - late 90s, 96, 97 - after her career was established, anyway. I remember seeing her on MTV back in the early 90s, but I didn't care, I was listening to jazz then - I picked up on her later. I remember a couple things: listening to Rid of Me and To Bring You My Love somewhat obsessively for a while; then seeing her on TV, singing songs from To Bring You My Love and Is This Desire. A TV show - must have been Sessions at West 54th Street (having consulted the googles, I see it was; I saw a few episodes of that show - Cibo Matto say...) - that was 98 or 99. The records came first, but that really sealed it - seeing her sing made those songs all the better. (Big fish little fish swimmin' inna water, come back here man gimme my daughter...) Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea just deepened it - those big jangly guitars, right in my wheelhouse. But really, she's been there since I started listening to her - Bring You My Love fit in nicely with what I listened to in the 90s - Pere Ubu and Built to Spill, to Sleater Knney and Captain Beefheart - and she led me to other things. Listening to PJ Harvey probably got me to check out Sleater Kinney - I am quite sure that Nick Cave's association with Harvey was the reason I picked up his records. I think I bought Murder Ballads first because of the duet with her. In this series, I've put her at the end of a 90s and 00s artists - but the truth is, she was the source of my interest in a lot of them.
Looking back across her career now, she is even more impressive. How much range she has! From punk (or post-punk - a musical offspring of Patti Smith and Nick Cave) to electronica/blues to jangly guitar pop to weird piano ballds (starting to sound like Kate Bush) to weird folk, sometimes all at once! She is a chameleon - changing styles; changing her voice, up and down in pitch, whispers, screams, shouts, croons, belting them out, thin and pretty sometimes, rich and powerful other times, capable of anything; changing her look. Looking through videos across her career - she covers pretty much every imaginable look, from punk to trashy to glamorous, to those weird white and black dresses she's featured in recent years. The look changes, her style changes - but she's there, a calm center - commanding every stage she's on. That volatility has always been her trademark, I think - the dynamic of her songs, the soft/hard dynamic on the early records; the mix of pretty melodies and seductive rhythms with edgy themes in the later ones - the shifts in tone, texture of songs, the sudden splashes of sound. She keeps you on your toes.
And finally, as a songwriter - she's among the elites. She's among my favorites - Cave; David Thomas; Mick and Keef; Richard Thompson, Lou Reed. Like Cave (and often Thomas, Thompson, Reed) she's more story teller than lyricist - she writes as a narrator - very striking on the early records, where the voice was often a man's, and on Let England Shake, where the stories were topical - and does it with great control, telling the story, and getting you into the narrator's emotional state. She creates characters that you come to know in 3 minutes - it's a gift. And she can turn a phrase with the best of them:
Seen and Done Things I Want to Forget
I don't want to make a fuss, I want to make my own fuckups
Until the light shines on me, I damn to hell every second you breath
I've lain with the devil, cursed god above, forsaken heaven, to bring you my love
Does it have to be a life full of dread, want to chase you round a table, want to touch your head...
Yes. So - on to the list, a top 10:
1. To Bring You My Love
2. Down By The Water
3. The Words That Maketh Murder
4. The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore
5. Rid of Me
6. Big Exit
10. My Beautiful Leah
And video: Start here, a 1991 full concert. Right at the beginning - she had such a big voice, big sound, that she could go anywhere, and has gone most places. These early clips, she is so confident and powerful - there's nothing missing, she's a neo-punk act as good as anyone else at the time, and better in ways, her song writing voice - her perspective - and her voice, which is just shocking, even then:
Here she is in 1993, playing Rid of Me on Leno - Leno; electric; solo (which I didn't really notice til the long shots came - she and a guitar can fill the world):
Down by the Water, 95 - Jools Holland:
This is the TV show I saw back in the 90s - Sessions at West 54th Street - this is I Think I'm a Mother and Is This Desire, plus an interview with David Byrne:
To Bring You My Love - playing guitar, 2003:
Speak to me of your inner charm, how you'll keep me, safe from harm - I don't think so...
Words That Maketh Murder, live:
And end with another complete concert, from 2011: