Thursday, May 29, 2008

PJ Harvey - Dry

PJ Harvey - Dry
by Lisa Oliver



Dry makes me feel like a loser. And it’s confusing. Not confusing like physics (if you throw a Toyota Yaris and a Hummer off a high-rise–they’re going to hit the ground simultaneously?), but confusing because people who I think have great taste love Dry. When I say I don’t like it, they give me the old stink-eye-to-eye-roll-to-exhale-of -pitying-air routine. Their non-verbal condescension speaks volumes; It says, “You are a rock charlatan.” To my uncouth ears Dry sounds like a dog yelping for air in a poorly-ventilated hatchback. And that dog can’t play guitar.

Much of the press for Dry praised its ability to challenge female sexuality. This album’s challenges to female sexuality are on the same level as a female comedian joking that eating a whole cheesecake over a kitchen sink with her hands gives her more pleasure than a man can. So many of Harvey’s lyrics remind me of the film Carrie: first comes the blood, then the boys. Is sex dirty? Am I dirty for wanting sex? Does my over-articulated sexuality make my hips look big? Do men make me unclean? Can I move things with my mind? Blah blah blah. Just own your bull’s eye, Polly Jean, and stop the hand-wringing. De Palma should remake Carrie and insert Harvey performing “Happy and Bleeding” into the shower/period scene with Harvey becoming a human shield against all those tampons being chucked at poor Sissy Spacek. And Stephen King deserves royalties for “Sheela-Na-Gig” because Harvey gives him the “dirty pillows” shout-out. Although I do have to admit “Dress” and “Plants and Rags” are decent because they sound the most fully fleshed and crafted. Plus she sings, as opposed to throttling them.

I’ve developed a theory researched with small empirical data sets–hello, academic credibility–postulating that P.J. Harvey is popular because she’s sexual, plays guitar, and isn’t unattractive. My algorithm goes: female ≥ attractive (fuck + guitar) = gentlemanly ear pricking.

Harvey is often lumped into the 90s women-in-rock movement. Erm…no. She doesn’t fall into the scented candle, furrowed brow school of Sarah McLaughlin, the bruised Pagan dream-catchers of Tori Amos, or Ani DiFranco’s tomboys-wearing-tank-tops-and-Doc -Marten’s coterie. (I do dig this movement, but I’m not a fully-paid up member.) But Polly doesn’t care about being an empowered WO-MYN. Her frisson of perplexed vulnerability makes that clear. She’s a lithe live wire of neurosis; anxious conflagration blazes out of her sinewy tendons.

John Peel’s (one of her biggest champions) review of her first single pointed out that her work is “admirable if not always enjoyable” –a very fair assessment–despite the fact Peel’s rationale is not the same as mine. He finds her emotional geyser uncomfortable to listen to whereas I find it a cheap and easy shot at intimacy. I find the clumsy cacophony of plinked, plunked notes and novice smoke and mirror time signatures to be not enjoyable. Still, there are things to admire. Despite the sonic miasma efforts, I still hear the bones of blues and punk–and that’s admirable. Also admirable is the fact that Dry is genuine musical footprint. It’s like looking at someone’s baby picture when they’re grown–you can see where that matured adult face came from. You can still hear the nascent yowling and fat guitars in later work, but her skill set, along with her confidence and self-actualization, has bloomed. Finally, Dry is admirable, if not enjoyable because it begins to set in motion P.J. Harvey’s ability to purge her pussy issues for inspiration, as opposed to flagellation.

Lisa Oliver is a Columbia-educated writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, Stylus, The Fly UK, Musicweek UK, Yahoo! Music, NME, Publishers Weekly, Domino and People.

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1 Comments:

Blogger Ally Broon said...

Can't there be more than 3 schools of 'woman in rock'? Can't PJ have her own, as Tori and Ani and Sarah are given?

Your theory about PJ's attractiveness helping her critical reputation is in contrast to a Swells rant I read on The Quietus yesterday - http://www.thequietus.com/2008/05/black-sky-thinking-tinging-outside-the-box/ - which suggests indie-hate for The Ting Tings is because the singer is an attractive girl. You can't both be right, but I suspect neither of you are.

May 30, 2008 at 7:19 AM  

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