I know this review is coming two weeks after the album’s release, but gosh durn it, I got an opinion and it needs to be expressed!
On their first collaboration since 1996’s Dance Hall at Louse Point, Harvey and Parish play their hand a little too early; the first track, the sleek rocker “Black Hearted Love,” is easily the strongest cut on the album, but one that would have sounded more at home on Harvey’s Stories from the City — Stories from the Sea. Maybe I just have a short attention span these days, but the entire album seems to crumble after the first three songs and wander off into a dark, murky territory. Keith Phipps of the AV Club was dead-on in his assertion that the album “heads in several directions at once, all of them intriguing, few of them fully satisfying.” All of these directions are fairly represented in the first three tracks: the glossy and heartfelt “Black Hearted Love,” the hillbilly freakout of “Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen,” and “Leaving California,” a song that revolves slowly like the creepiest carousel in the world. This last song finds Harvey singing well beyond her range, her soprano reduced to a quivery wisp reminiscent of Beth Gibbons’.
It’s a strength of the album that, after only a few spins, I can remember each song as a distinct entity (which is more than I can say for Harvey’s last solo album, the solid but underwhelming White Chalk). Each track creates its own atmosphere, but individually they never congeal into much melody or structure. “Pig Will Not” and the previously-mentioned “Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen,” show Harvey pulling out the dirty growl and yowl she hasn’t used much since Dance Hall and To Bring You My Love, which might come as a pleasant surprise to those who miss her rawer work from the Rid of Me days. The title track is her most disturbing performance since Dance Hall’s “Taut;” Harvey chants repeatedly in a masculine groan, “I want your fucking ass!” before reeling into hysterical shrieks. Her creaky vocals on “April” are an interesting experiment, but a reminder why many people have found her to be off-putting over the years.
The strangest juxtaposition on the album occurs between the barking and pounding tantrum of “Pig Will Not,” and the next song, “Passionless, Pointless,” which reveals Harvey at her most toothless. On its own, it might be a beautiful and aching love song, but after the storm, it simply sounds deflated, weak. The first few tracks and the last few bookend the record relatively well, but everything in the middle gets a little gooey. Harvey and Parish’s collaborations are always promising (he writes the music, she provides lyrics) but they never seem to try for consistency, a fact that usually leads to their ultimate downfall.
Purchase at Insound
Recently on Facebook, there has been a rash of users posting applications like “Albums that have shaped me,” or “Albums that have changed my life.” Now, I’ll start off by saying that lists and rankings such as the classic “Top Five Desert Island Albums” have always presented something of a challenge for me. Current top five? Can’t do it. My music-listening habits of the last four years have been so incredibly fractured that I’d be hard-pressed to make a cohesive list that reflects my current aesthetic. There’s one or two records I’ve listened to consistently (Frengers and And the Glass-Handed Kites, both by Danish band Mew), and a handful of records that I like in the most casual of ways (In Ear Park by Department of Eagles, TV on the Radio’s Dear Science, even a would-be fascination with Pinback’s Rob Crow and his various projects). But five solid choices? And what about top five of all time? Can’t do that either. There was a time in my life, say about six or seven years ago, when I was dead certain that there were four or six(never five!) perfect records (with staying power, no less) I could name on demand.
Because of the aforementioned difficulties, I actually find the “Albums that have shaped my life” to be a more comforting format for sharing my “top” records. It’s easier to talk about, to quantify. The albums either had a profound effect on me, or they didn’t — and that’s something that will never change. I will impose no limits on number. There will probably be more than five but less than ten. Who knows?
Criteria include 1) an album I can listen to in full, without skipping a track (or at least no more than two tracks), 2) an album that remained a favorite for a significant period of time, and 3) one that possibly changed the way I thought about music altogether.
So without further ado, and in no particular order (the numbers are a formality):
1. Either/Or by Elliott Smith
2. Under the Pink, Tori Amos
3. Post, Bjork
4. To Bring You My Love, PJ Harvey
5. One Part Lullaby, The Folk Implosion
6. III, Sebadoh
7. If You’re Feeling Sinister, Belle & Sebastian
This list is not at all surprising if you consider that they reflect my adolescent period, the time when we are all a little more sensitive to pop culture and absorbed the trends of the time, possibly internalizing them for life. I discovered all of these albums when I was between the ages of 13 and 19, years 1994-2000.
These choices don’t necessarily reflect current tastes; I almost never listen to Tori Amos anymore (unless I need something I can sing along with on a long drive), and although I still enjoy Bjork’s earlier albums, most of her work after Vespertine doesn’t interest me much. On the other hand, I am Lou Barlow’s girl always and forever. True, he has a 75-25% “unlistenable crap” to “brilliance” ratio, but I will always wade through the 75% of crap to get to the gems. Belle & Sebastian will always be welcome in my stereo and my iPod (although not in my car — more on that later!).
In the next few posts, I’ll explore a handful of these essential albums/artists and the subsequent obsessions they spawned in a more thorough fashion. Until then, toodles.