PJ Harvey

Hi everyone! Here we are at the beginning of something quite beautiful! This is ZaRecords’ first guest appearance post! My dear friend Maria, whom I’ve been referencing in many posts, and who provided the inspiration for this blog with her own ZaBooks venture, wrote me a letter. You see, I told her how I feel about PJ Harvey – the way I feel about Kate Bush as well, wink-wink, nudge-nudge: respectful, fascinated, but suffering from an acute lack of wordless, visceral comprehension. My mind tells me I get what’s going on, but that’s where the communication stops, and I perceive that as a fault on my part. I decided I needed help with PJ Harvey, and she has provided just that. I could not make her adhere to the way I write these things, focusing on one particular album, so what we have here is an overarching perspective on PJ Harvey’s entire career, peppered with examples and entirely effective. So, without further ado, I give you the wonderful words of Maria Ștefana!

Dear Mircea,

I will talk to you about PJ Harvey and I will do so pretending this is a letter because really I am writing this for you and I’ll pretend there’s nobody watching because I have just discovered – talking about music makes me shy… Because I know nothing about it, really and I have mainstream taste and a collection of platitudes and an obsessive approach towards songs I like, which is hard to justify. And also, this has taken a shitload of time to write and is going to take a shitload of time to read as well, I warn you.

So, dear Mircea, I apologize for the teenage journal vibe of this text I’m writing. I had to choose between being sober and coherent and distant or appearing as a halfwit but telling what I feel is the truth. I chose the first option first, not knowing there is a second one, and it was so dry and foreign and strange that I discovered this second way and I hope it works.

I will try to explain to you why I love PJ Harvey so. PJ Harvey’s name is Polly-Jean; you knew that, but I’ve always found this fantastic, that she’s called Polly-Jean. She’s probably embarrassed, called herself PJ to appear tougher, to make the world forget about that milkmaid name, but still, Polly-Jean lurks nearby, always. She hasn’t changed it to Gudrun, it’s not lost forever. There’s a girl behind PJ and PJ knows it and the world feels it and this is really the essence of why I love her. But I should probably speak about her music and not her name.

I discovered her at 14, I think. It was one of those discoveries I made myself, on MTV UK, where they had one summer of intense It’s a Perfect Day, Elise. The year was 1998 and she had a huge career behind her already, so this hardly makes me a PJ connaisseur… It’s a Perfect Day, Elise, is still the PJ that everyone knows, sufficiently toned down to be loved by your average modestly pretentious music listener, not detestable by the masses and I still think it’s a great great song. What had got me first was that rhythm, the haunting thumping and then her airy voice that was still somewhat sardonic and harsh. That line, “Listen Joe, don’t you come here again” just opens up a whole character; you just see the girl uttering it, the look of spite on her face and her indifference and arrogance. And then, right after, the seraphic “White sun scattered all over the sea“, at the beginning of the following chapter, setting the scene of the perfect day of the shooting. There’s something like a choir in the background also, so the serene scenery is taken to the next level and you feel that you’re in the killer’s head, having flashes of details of the world’s magnificence once he knows he’s doomed. Because, maybe you have already noticed it, with all the names and descriptions in her songs, she often makes up characters. These girls she’s talking about, these men, are a gallery of stories and have mysterious connections between them. Now, I know what you are going to say, but I feel that the lyrics never overpower the melody, she doesn’t speaksing. Rather, the melody and the lyrics make up the story together, because there is irony and seriousness and a mood in the instruments and it rounds up the message perfectly. So here’s A Perfect Day, Elise, my first PJ Harvey:

Just a few months later, her 1993 album Rid of Me was the first tape I ever bought out of my own money and at my own initiative. And together with Bjork and the likes it kinda saved my sorry ass, because who are you going to identify with when you’re 14 and bookish and too horribly shy to talk to boys, especially the one you like, and therefore too bizarre to have friends? Thankfully, you are going to want to become PJ, not Baby Spice. That album is of a fury, strength and insanity so brave that it never comes across as hysterical, just self-assertive. Also, not one ounce of vulgarity: where Courtney Love was a slut, for example, PJ is elegantly ill at ease. She comes across as someone who has consciously decided to make a racket because it is the only logical way to go and the only way to get what she wants. Because otherwise, really, she would be too polite. The meditative “I might as well be dead, but I could kill you instead” at the end of Legs, on the album, is very indicative of what I mean. Take also the Man-Size Sextet: it starts with an expectant guitar and an almost inaudible voice, but this all changes to chaotic riffs and her voice hitting notes that are not very pretty to the ear and it all serves a greater purpose: the tiny girl becomes man-sized. She knows that at some point she will not have to shout anymore because “you can hear you can hear her now”. And her prediction turns true, since by the end of the song, her voice is just as quiet as in the beginning, but now you can hear her very very clearly. All this, she has accomplished in less than 4 minutes. Here is a performance of the song from 1992 and also, for your enjoyment, the way she plays it in 2007 – controlled, confidently, beautifully, since the girl need not shout anymore – in the video right after this one:

Eventually, I managed to discover Is This Desire, as well, in 2001, while in the States, walking barefoot through woods on the banks of the Hudson river. Sounds romantic, but it was stupid, I almost got bitten by a snake. Is This Desire is a more peaceful album, with lots of stories intertwined, about girls called Elise, Leah, Angelene  and a reference to St. Catherine (in The Wind), all different variants of womanhood and such accurate sympathetic portraits that I couldn’t help but feel that I knew one of each. If you want to begin to understand what PJ Harvey is all about, maybe this is the album to start with, it’s like “an introduction to the mind of PJ”. A track of pure, exuberant, unpretentious joy is The Sky Lit Up:

The reason why I left behind a memorable track like Rid of Me, is because I wanted to talk about the concert I saw in 2001. I know, this all is not very coherent, but I warned you. Right after the snake incident and right before the two-planes-over-the-World-Trade-Center-incident, I went to a PJ Harvey concert at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan. Rid of Me was a moment of pure and true bliss, and here is the way she sang in 2001 this track from 1993:

It is, as I remember and I see from this clip, a climax of concentration, of tension that she plays while effortlessly keeping the whole house at the tips of her fingers. She doesn’t need theatrics; it’s just her voice and her guitar and her presence that is so powerful. These lyrics are so tricky, I find, they can sound quite emo-ish and immature if played over-emotionally or as a joke. But she finds the perfect balance between the heavy mood of her guitar and the over-the-top rawness of the words and her extremely focused self and it never becomes too much, it’s never a circus display. As a spectator there, and as a viewer today, I am transported and attentive and awake. I find this is a remarkable feat.

OK now, I feel that if I want to talk about my two true favorites, I need to skip over some time and maybe talk to you later about Stories from the City and A Woman, A Man Walked By, so I don’t make this post a novel. As everyone knows, the first great surprise from PJ Harvey was her album White Chalk. It took me about two months to get what the hell she was doing being so melancholic and silent and unextraordinary. But to my great luck, I had to ride a lot of trains at the time and I sort of started listening to the album more carefully. And I had this enormous gigantic shock: White Chalk was an album about herself. She had given up the guitar and taught herself how to play other instruments, given up the big voice and made the bravest album yet. She was fragile in her piano skills, her voice is fragile because she decides to sing mostly in falsetto and the emotions are fragile and deep. Every time I listen to this album as a whole I get teary eyed, not because it implies some kind of tragedy (I have the intimate conviction that it is an album about an abortion, but maybe it’s not that)  but because I can’t think of how vulnerable you must become once you put yourself out there like that. From time to time we almost get to see glimpses of Polly Jean.

I don’t know if you remember, but I decided that Cristi [editor’s note: Cristi, Maria and I were students together and have remained very close friends] absolutely needed to listen to this album and I don’t think I ever explained why. It was because we had had lots of talks about women and feminism and truth and for the first time I felt that I had found a way to show what might be the depths of a femininity that was discreet and authentic. None of the female characters in the plays I had ever read or seen, or in the novels I knew had had this power before, so I wanted him to understand what I meant when I said I didn’t like most women. Most women are not like her, that’s why. I also thought it might help him in his work. It might also help you in your work: take my advice, if you ever want to create a profoundly accurate and intelligent female character, mold it after PJ Harvey in White Chalk.

Check out this performance of Silence.

Her voice sometimes slips and becomes the voice of a child and I feel like holding her and my stomach churns… And the lucidity and undramatic tones of that “though you never wanted me anyway” break my heart. I feel that truer words were never spoken and there is no other way to say “though you never wanted me anyway”. I feel that a big part of this album is also about the things you never dare say, about little fantasies that never come to light because you are proper and neat and it’s only natural she should have a song called “Silence” on it. There is a whole world that just sits, imagined, behind allusions and dimpled smiles. And this is why I’ve been saying that she is the contemporary Virginia Woolf. This is an album that needs to be listened to all at once, I think, in one big piece. Patiently and respectfully, because I can’t imagine what it took for man-size PJ Harvey to make a song in which she shouts “Oh God I miss you” – The Piano:

Check out The Devil as well:

Just when I had grown accustomed to the idea that that album was a one-time feat of raw honesty, (in the meantime she released A Woman A Man, which I loved, but was quite different and experimental), she struck again with Let England Shake. I can’t tell you how many times I cried like an idiot in the street and on trains listening to that album. This woman actually sat.down.and.tried.to understand.war and she talked to veterans and spent time in libraries doing historical research on the First World War and after that she gave this whole immensely heavy amount of information form and melody and words and emotion. I can’t convey how extraordinary I find this approach. The Virginia Woolf analogy goes on because it made me understand why Virginia Woolf was so horror stricken and pained and driven crazy by war. Actually, rather than “understand” – feel, acknowledge and experience it personally. It’s not U2, it’s not soppy Michael Jackson, it’s a reconstitution of war, war conditions, of marches and what it means for the women and what it means for the old people and the soldiers themselves. And it never, at any point, lectures about politics and why it’s not good to fight. Also, I understood for the first time that my life and the building I live in and the fields I eat from and the hills I see in the distance are imbibed with the violence of past fights. I don’t know how to explain this, it’s almost tangible and makes me shudder. Here is On Battleship Hill:

I think her voice at the beginning of the song is a rendition of those Victorian songs the accomplished girls used to sing at parties while playing the piano, I think that’s the source. Actually, for a lot of the album she transforms songs from the beginning of the 20th century. On my first listen, my favorite by far was a “march”, called “The Glorious Land”:

The poetry of this album is staggeringly beautiful, there are several lines that have completely caught me off-balance and that haunt me still: “Jagged mountains jutting out cracked like teeth in a rotten mouth” or “Death was everywhere in the air, when you rolled a smoke or told a joke it was in the laughter and the drinking water”  or “Flesh quivering in the heat”. On this album, her voice is that of a narrator and a traveler and a soldier and she has never sounded truer I think. She is not afraid of clichés, she has pushed cynicism aside, and she remains a rockstar and in my opinion the most original of them. She innovates continuously and explores and if Bjork I don’t understand so much anymore, PJ Harvey just struck the most hidden chords of my heart with her last albums. I will end with the clip for The Words that Maketh Murder:

As you know by now, femininity is not a notion that I generally hold dear to my soul or appreciate. More often than not, I am appalled at everything it implies. However, PJ Harvey has come to represent to me everything that lurks and swamps and turns around in the female brain and body. I am a bit uncomfortable speaking about this, but I feel that I couldn’t put it otherwise: it’s about not wanting to be vulnerable but in the end coming to terms with it, it’s about being elegant and contained and loving intelligently and intimately and powerfully, with a blindness to the outside world. And it’s also about being knowledgeable and informed and honest even when it hurts and endangers the persona you have created. It’s about never being weird for weirdness’ sake. And everything else.

Are you not in love yet? [editor’s note: Yes, yes I am.]

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Sonic Youth – Dirty (1992) & 100th Post!

I find it hard to believe I’ve reached 100 posts. I don’t think I’ve ever held on to an enterprise for so long and up to such a satisfying, round, psychologically wholesome number. I’ve thought a lot about how I could possibly celebrate this date, and I couldn’t really come up with anything flashy or really festive. My favorite thing to do, at all times, is to just listen to and play music, and write about it. It’s a limited skill set, I know, but it’s managed to keep me happy through this seemingly endless winter over here, and through all the seemingly endless winters I’ve been lucky enough to have to go through. So I guess that’s what I’ll do, today, as I try on most days – listen to this great album, and try to put a bit of the experience into words.

Sonic Youth feels like one of those bands which demands a serious baggage of information in order to be approachable by a would-be critic. The same vibe applies to the uninitiated listener as well, although, in my opinion, I think it’s a myth that works mostly against the band’s musical way of expression. For some reason, I get the feeling Sonic Youth is considered one of those proto-hipster bands which only true razor-thin musical tastes can hold any claim of understanding as a whole. Luckily, I’m not going to attempt a history of the band, since it’s been around a very long time now, experimenting and playing with a myriad of styles and genre bending their way across the decades. I’ll just try to write about Dirty, their 1992 album, the first of their discography I ever listened to, and the one which I still enjoy the most.

Sonic Youth are known as sort-of tonal mad scientists, a rock band on the fringe of dissolution into noise, an outfit prone to sudden bouts of amplifier feedback ritual and worship. Blixa Bargeld of Einstürzende Neubauten fame would praise their unique and heretic approach to their own music and their musical instruments (tens of busted up and experimented upon guitars kept in cardboard boxes all over the stage, like so many broken furniture parts) as he was deciding to leave Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds on account of Nick’s heroine fever-dream music being just a little bit too mainstream back in the early nineties. Kurt Cobain used to idolize them and covered one of their songs with Nirvana. That’s how much of an impression Sonic Youth leave, while somehow managing to stay in the shadows of the industry, thoroughly askew in their abrasive sound armor plating, merely flirting with pop sensibility on some albums and completely smashing it against the wall in others.

Dirty is one of those albums which are more accessible, more radio friendly, if you will, although I think that’s saying a bit much. Sonic Youth sounds on this album like that band you’ve always wanted to make when you were an adolescent in the mid nineties, but never had the balls to pull off, not really being sure if you wanted to rock for the statement or for the chicks. I’ve never heard a band manage to pull off making noises with guitars in such a way as to make it seem very complicated and artful. This music sounds to me like some form of heavy, toxic, extremely pure grunge concentrate, a sort of fanged punk mutation with less jumping around and more gritting of teeth, sensual in its approach of noise and relentless in its construction of sexy, simple, furious songs which pound themselves into your head and stay there for good. I haven’t listened to Dirty in over five years, and yet when I played it for myself yesterday it felt like not a day had passed, I could recognize the sound instantly, and it was scintillating.

The grunge reference comes up mostly because of the fact that Kim Gordon’s singing style reminds me so much of Courtney Love’s, and Hole is one of my favorite bands of the nineties, but that’s not to say Dirty is a grunge album – the vibe is very different, although I find it hard to explain. I guess it has to do with the background – Sonic Youth come from New York and draw a lot of strength from The Velvet Underground’s pioneering work, which is all very nice, but doesn’t overlap with grunge’s direct lineage. There’s a much more detached, “meta” feeling about this music, even though it’s every bit as massive and powerful as any of the Seattle scene’s outfits of the age.

In any case, enough musical history nitpicking. Do yourselves a favor and play this album loud, or with a good pair of headphones. It wants to scrape at your ears, and it’ll be a very pleasurable kind of pain if you’re anything like me. Thank you very much for sticking with me for 100 posts! I’ll see you soon!

Red House Painters – Old Ramon (2001)

I’ve written about Mark Kozelek before, in my post about Sun Kil Moon‘s “Admiral Fell Promises” album, one of my favorite records of 2010. Red House Painters are his first band, formed in 1989 in San Francisco and arguably one of the most personal, intimate and warm musical instances of the nineties. The sad, yearning songs which make up Old Ramon, the last album Mark Kozelek released with Red House Painters, are some of the best and most memorable in his career and this record has been in my personal top for about six years now.

Source: planetlyrics.co

Kozelek is a remarkably constant songwriter, possessing an instantly recognizable style, marked by a feeling of patience and attention to detail, both in matters of music and lyrics, able to zoom in on a tiny detail and paint it with stunning accuracy and universal appeal. His songs are usually slow, simple yet intricate, each one vibrating with a delicate, vintage vibe, like a painstakingly sculpted objet d’art. In all honesty, this album reminds me successively of many little meaningful gifts I gave to people I care about throughout the years – the music itself opens up these doors to memory, sweet and quaint as they may be, populating the room I’m in with the presence of so many faded romances and estranged friends it’s sometimes hard not to feel overwhelmed by regret and nostalgia while listening to Old Ramon. I don’t mean this music turns me into an old man; instead, it creates a field in which time seems somehow more dense, in which the myriad slices of yourself which have brought you to this very present suddenly begin to speak again, to assert themselves and lure you into an often-times much-needed conference with the past.

This type of enhanced perception of detail flows forward seamlessly from the hypnotic, sweetly repetitive patterns of this music and suddenly objects around you jingle the strands connecting them to your own biography, capture you in this soft web of memory and every image becomes palpable and immediate. The vintage cigarette holder I found for a dear friend in another city, the cheesy stack of moon photographs with the names of the craters and mountains printed on them in bright yellow, on the backs of which I shamelessly wrote fake memories of romantic strolls an ex girlfriend and I had supposedly taken in the weightless, breathless landscape, the image of my first guitar, black and bulky, leaning tiredly against a wooden wall in the garret of my home, these are things which come flooding in so vividly and candidly it’s simply amazing to think about the way such things can stay hidden in your mind for so long and so quietly, and how they shake off the dust and appear so resplendently once awakened by these soulful melodies. This is private, sensuous music, sincerely romantic, albeit a bit cheesy. But this pang of guilt at the enjoyment of such emotional music is merely an afterthought, an unfair reflex already far away by the time you get into the groove and let the stream of sound float you away.

Old Ramon, as all of Mark Kozelek’s music, is autobiographical, honest and direct, drawing in turn from the deep well of his personal experience and memory. The fact that the music manages to incite the same type of communication with the self is by no means a small feat. Many times songwriters exercise a way of saying without saying, of simultaneous confession and concealment, and while I’m sure Mark Kozelek isn’t immune to this very human reflex, this album, at least, feels to me like one of those rare and precious moments of understanding, of unmediated connection people can establish, sometimes by accident, other times by sheer patience and as a culmination of gathered experience and trust. “River”, for example, is in my opinion an unequaled display of beauty and an acutely sensitive musical iteration of the tension and expectation which I connect to flirtation and the instant when one falls in love. Dizzying, deceptively soft and surprisingly unrelenting, the song perfectly recalls that biological version of gravitational attraction which sometimes sparks between two people and is, I think, my favorite piece of Mark Kozoelek’s songwriting in all of his career.

I’ve said about as much as I can about this album, which as always tends to overwhelm me and leave my words obsolete. Enjoy, if the mood fits you. And if not, save it for a day in which it does. See you soon!