Album Review: A Woman a Man Walked By


Album Review: A Woman a Man Walked By
PJ Harvey and John Parish
Island Records

If Polly Jean Harvey ever wanted to avoid the often inevitable record company ‘Best Of’ compilation album, A Woman a Man Walked By (released tomorrow) would suffice as a nice little retrospective of her music thus far. While the record features all new material, and technically exists as the second collaboration LP with musician and longtime producer John Parish, Walked By manages to sum up an exciting career, spanning almost two decades. 

To take care of some of the technicalities behind this record it should be noted that A Woman a Man Walked By is the musical love child of both Harvey and Parish–the former writing all lyrics and taking care of the vocals, with the latter writing and performing the music. Parish has been a longtime friend and musical partner, having produced and played on three of Harvey’s past studio albums, as well as a prior collaboration project, 1996’s Dance Hall at Louse Point. Here it’s as if Harvey was able to focus solely on her writing and vocal stylings (a similar collaboration worked wonders last year for David Byrne and Brian Eno).

The result of this recent partnership is a genre-bending album from Harvey’s past and present. From the heavy alternative blues rock of Dry and To Bring You My Love, to the atmospheric folk tunes from 2007’s bizarre concept departure, White Chalk, Harvey skips from one familiar sound to the next with the confidence of an artist summing up her artistic existence, while also bringing to the forefront a bevy of some of her best songs to date.

Is the album as ambitious as White Chalk or as prolific as Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea? No. Does it showcase her abilities as a raging blues guitar banshee? Not quite. Where A Woman a Man Walked By succeeds is in is Harvey’s knack for writing haunting alt-rock songs and her full-fledged vocals, which casually shift from grunge to ethereal folk.

On the rip-roaring opener, “Black Hearted Love,” a welcomed heavy rock song that is worlds apart from White Chalk’s exercise in cryptic piano lullabies, Harvey aptly sings, “I’d like to take you to a place I know.” It’s as if she’s asking us if we’re ready to embark on whatever lies ahead. The short answer to this instant classic–yes.

On “Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen” Parish’s acoustic guitar riffs pick up where Jimmy Page left off on Zeppelin III’s “Friends,” while Harvey croons about an ill-fated game of hide and seek.

“Leaving California,” The Soldiers,” “April” are the record’s three unofficial continuations from White Chalk, relying heavily on Harvey’s newfound love of soothing child like piano/organ riffs and falsettos. The latter of the trio features one of the most chilling musical ascents of any song Harvey has ever recorded behind a sparse drum march and a Hammond B3 Organ tuned to ‘haunting.’  

The album’s title track–a two-part anti-love song (?) culminating with a rather jarring but beautiful instrumental piece–pays homage to Harvey’s gritty punk past circa Dry, and may be the only song to ever feature the lines “he had chicken liver heart made of chicken liver parts / liver little parts” followed by “I want his fucking ass.” Sung with the same razor sharp virtuosic pipes that once established Harvey as badass singer songwriter she’s evolved from, this is one of the album’s highlights. one that definitely grows on the ears after its initial lyrical shock and awe.

A Woman a Man Walked By’s most surprising tracks also couldn’t be farther apart in nature. “Pig Will Not” might be the record’s most forgettable track, although its screeching guitar/vocal distortion will appease the fans of past songs like To Bring You My Love’s “Long Snake Moan.” At the other end of Harvey’s spectrum is the record’s closer, “Cracks in the Canvas,” an atmospheric two-minute spoken word exercise that would feel right at home in a David Lynch film, most likely sung by a perfect ‘10’ blonde with a This Mortal Coilesque, dream-pop voice. At the end she leaves us with:

I’m looking for an answer
Me and a million others
Disbelievers
Desserted lovers
Dear God, you’d better not let me down this time
Cracks in the canvas
Look like roads that never end

It could be that A Woman a Man Walked By is yet another side project/segue to Polly Jean’s next musical direction, similarly to her last collaboration with Parish, which followed the extremely successful To Bring You My Love. Perhaps it’s simply just a pet project of the two that had been long overdue. Whatever the album’s goal might be is trivial. The ten songs that fill this album channel an unprecedented career from one of finer musicians working today. For Harvey fans this may ultimately serve as a bridge to her future endeavors. For anyone just jumping into her music it just might be the perfect catalyst for a an appreciation of Harvey’s music.  

Album Review: It’s Blitz!


Album Review:

It’s Blitz (2009)

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Interscope Records

The third album from any promising artist or group is more often than not the most critical and decisive release of a career. After wowing audiences with the debut and then taking things up a notch with the sophomore release, the general rule of thumb for the third outing is either follow suit or stir things up, the latter being the risky gamble that can break or make careers. Radiohead planted its seeds of musical relevance with its third release Ok Computer, Springsteen on Born to Run, PJ Harvey with To Bring You My Love and now the Yeah Yeah Yeahs with its latest release. 

It’s Blitz! (Interscope Records, 2009) may come as a bit of a shock to some fans expecting yet another record propelled by Karen O’s fiery shrieks and falsettos. When looking at The Yeah Yeah Yeahs natural progression since it’s monstrous debut, Fever to Tell, the band’s third album fits nicely in its budding catalogue.

The aforementioned shock would undoubtedly arise after listening to It’s Blitz!’s opening two tracks, “Zero” and “Heads will Roll,” which are both terribly catchy dance-pop numbers. With Nick Zinner’s distortion soaked guitar riffs replaced with synthesizers and Karen O’s signature highly sexual screeches and moans toned down to a more refined (albeit welcomed) take on conventional pop vocals, the early moments on It’s Blitz! are bizarre enough to warrant a double check that this is, in fact, the same Yeah Yeah Yeahs that once wrote I gotta’ man who makes me wanna’ kill

Whereas the opening tracks would feel right at home at the club or late night in the car when nobody can see you jamming out, a number of the following songs feel like extensions (or shall we say improvements) on the band’s surprise 2003 hit, “Maps.” 

“Skeletons,” one of the most strikingly beautiful songs Karen O has ever SUNG–lyrics tend to be The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Achilles heel. Beginning with a dreamlike synth loop, the song crescendos to a massive soundscape finale, which ceaselessly segues into “Dull Life,” the first song on the disc even remotely reminiscent to the group’s art punk past.

The record’s pinnacle exercise, “Runaway,” starts off as a hauntingly stripped down piano ballad showcasing O’s more delicate vocal range but eventually morphs into a powerful free-for-all of frantic string arrangements and thunderous drumming from Brian Chase (another venture away from the drummer’s conventional kit minimalism).

“Hysteric” very well may be the album’s “Maps,” a love song with lyrics like, Flow sweetly hang heavy / You suddenly complete me. An equally effective bonus acoustic version of the song hints at what alternate live versions of these new songs may sound like. 

It should come as no surprise that with this record the band called upon rising producer and member of TV on the Radio Dave Sitek for input. Radio’s third record, the masterful Return to Cookie Mountain, also secured the band’s status as one of the few current bands that matters. Sitek has a penchant for deconstructing all prior notions of what dance music should be.

It should also be noted that past Yeahs songs have led up to It’s Blitz! whether of not it was intentional. The closing trio on Fever to Tell–“Maps,” “Y Control” and “Modern Romance”–were fairly significant departure from the album’s prior tracks, possibly hinting at what was to come.

For The Yeah Yeah Yeahs it might have been easy for the trio to just continue the formula that lumped them with a budding minimalist post punk genre consisting primarily of The Strokes and The White Stripes. Unlike its contemporaries The Strokes, which tried to stir things up with its third (and also most pop-friendly) album First Impressions of Earth but was overly ambitious for its own good, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have broken free from what’s expected of them and are on a path to sparking listener curiosity for future records.

Short, loud alt-punk vignettes propelled Fever to Tell, while 2006’s Show Your Bones was less aggressive, opening up the floor for some more alt-experimentation. With It’s Blitz! the band has made its dance record, and done so without a hitch. Let’s just hope the band keeps evolving come record number four. 

Musical Reinvention (Madonna Puns Aside)


Within the past month there have been a number of monumental releases kicking off the fall music season. There was that intense Kanye vs. Fitty 9/11 showdown, last week Bruce Springsteen released Magic, his newest record with the E Street Band, and this past Wednesday fans around the globe were treated to a rare musical milestone with the internet release of Radiohead’s highly anticipated seventh album, In Rainbows. Amidst all the publicity and hoorah for these monumental releases (for the record, Kanye’s Graduation and Magic are both surprisingly great records, and as I’m writing this Radiohead’s newest opus is blaring through my headphones for the fourth time) it was easy to overlook some other smaller but equally rewarding album returns from a number of talented musicians including, ether-worldly vocalist Sam Beam aka Iron and Wine, guitar sultan Mark Knopfler, and ex-Eurhythmics siren Annie Lennox, to name a few. The most startling, overlooked, and finest album to jump start the fall is by one PJ Harvey.

Polly Jean Harvey has been releasing beautifully crafted and radically unique albums since the early nineties. She made a splash with records like 1995’s To Bring You My Love, and 2000’s Stories From the City, Stories from the Sea both of which earned her well-deserved praise and a small but loyal following. What ties all of Harvey’s albums together, despite her furious and versatile voice, is the common theme of reinvention. Her recent musical contribution, White Chalk, is Harvey’s most bizarre transformation yet but it also might be her best.

Fueled by a dependence on minimalist, lullabyesque piano melodies, a surprisingly welcomed move away from the usual fiery blues electric guitar sound of latter records, and a rather haunting change in vocals, White Chalk is a puzzling album that asks a lot from its listener, but is nevertheless and instant classic. Part concept album (Harvey channels a number of different beyond the grave ghostly voices on this record), part shift into the realms of goth folk rock, if such a genre exists, Chalk is arguably the weirdest transition of Harvey’s career and raises the question, what’s next for Ms. Polly Jean?

Artists have been shedding their musical skin for years, drastically changing their sound, style and in some cases completely reinventing music, as we know it. White Chalk is by no means as prolific as when Dylan picked up an electric, or The Beatles helped coin the phrase “art rock,” but I can’t think of a more perfect recent example of how the best musicians working are the chameleons who strive to evolve through change.

While listening to White Chalk (the album has been a staple on my iPod all week and has yet to leave my car’s CD player) I started to conjure up a list of other notable radical musical reinventions from artists over the years.

Miles Ahead—It’s become a bit cliché, at least in the jazz world, to say that Miles Davis changed the face of jazz on more than one occasion–always looking forward, never looking back. Still when you look at this legend’s career and the choices that he made it’s hard not to play along with this statement. The three obvious Miles milestones were 1949’s Birth of the Cool, which took Bebop a step further living up to the album’s title; 1959’s Kind of Blue, the first true modal, atmospheric jazz experience; and 1969’s In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, fusion records that brought on the wave of free jazz and helped link rock and roll to jazz. In reality Davis continued to reinvent his sound album after album until the day he died (Davis’ final album, the critically panned Doo-Bop, is proof that had he continued making music Davis might have helped to bridge the short gap between hip-hop and jazz) despite being ignored and lambasted by so-called jazz purists.

Cha-Cha-Cha Changes—David Bowie was at one point the most capricious musician working in the industry, bending genres and sounds at every chance he could. From early Brit pop singer songwriter (Hunky Dory), to glam rock pioneer (Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane), dark goth rocker (The Man Who Sold the World, Diamond Dogs), and the shamefully overlooked (1. Outside), R&B crooner (Young Americans), experimental ambient kraut rock (Station to Station, The Berlin Trilogy: Low, Heroes & Lodger), proto punk (Scary Monsters and Super Creeps) dance pop (Let’s Dance, Black Tie White Noise) and even a stint in bass and drum heavy electronica (Earthling), Bowie’s androgyny and shape shifting persona went far beyond simply his appearance.

Under African Skies
—During the 80s a number of big name artists shed the familiar sounds of their back catalogue and explored the varied rhythms and styles coming from South Africa’s afro-pop scene and the Caribbean reggae wave. In almost all cases the musicians who went the worldly route in lieu of the synth-pop heavy music of the time created some of the finest records of their career, often introducing audiences to musical sounds being created outside of the mainstream. In 1986 Paul Simon ditched his humble singer songwriter persona with the release of Graceland, a record that dabbled in a slew of bicultural sounds–African acapella, Louisiana gospel R&B, Tex-Mex guitar rock, to name a few. Talking Heads seemed to change their style on every record but it wasn’t until the out of left field, Afro-pop influenced masterpiece, Remain in Light, that they let their true artistic visions best the demands of 80s pop music norms. Add fellow contemporaries such as Peter Gabriel (Melt, So) and even Michael Jackson (1979’s Off the Wall may have helped jumpstart this intercontinental melting pot trend) and it’s hard to deny that the 1980s were more than ever a time where popular music was transforming into a global medium.

The Crooked Beat—It’s safe to say the Clash had been evolving and broadening their musical range ever since their self-titled debut, however, 1980s triple LP monster Sandinista! was the record that truly went all out thanks to an interest in damn near every style they could come up with–dub reggae, classical chamber concertos, disco, and even bizarre Eastern European folk dance (listen to “Lose this Skin” for this comparison to make sense). The release transported The Clash well beyond the simple “punk band” title they helped coin and would unfortunately be there last truly great contribution.

When Liner Notes Just Aren’t Enough

The Finest Album Companions

In the “digital age” of MP3s and iPods it’s easy to forget about one of the truly unique parts of an album; the liner notes. These little foldouts that come with CDs and the larger inserts that once were so caringly paired with vinyl, often serve as more than just outlets for the tracklisting and endless shout outs from the artists and producers involved in the recording. From song lyrics, album mission statements, recording session notes, to galleries for album art, liner notes enable dedicated listeners to crack the musical shell and dive deeper into the record’s artistic core. For true music übernerds or really anyone looking to learn a little more about their favorite albums sometimes liner notes just don’t cut it.

Back in 2003 a group of music enthusiasts started the Thirty-Three and a Third series, a collection of pocket size books for loyal listeners looking to enhance their knowledge of their favorite albums. The series set out to examine a diverse range of pinnacle albums of the past 50 years, everything from undisputed masterpieces (The Beatles’ Let It Be, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Neil Young’s Harvest), lesser known indie-gems (Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs, Belle and Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister), to overlooked albums from stellar artists (Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, David Bowie’s Low). Consider this column a recommendation to fellow music lovers who may not be familiar with this wonderful series.

The growing anthology (50 books currently available with roughly 20 plus slated for future release) provides curious listeners with a look at how the album was created–from the initial incarnation, to the recording process, followed by the release and the album’s aftermath–and then discusses the records importance in the wide arena of popular music. These quick reads (average editions range from 100-200 pages in pocket size formats) are brilliant ways to explore another side of some classic albums for five reasons:

1) For starters, they’re highly addictive, providing listeners with an easy fix of background information pertaining to a slew of stellar albums. Some books use interviews with the bands or artists to tell the story others focus on the album’s shear importance; all provide that extra bit of insight not found on a mere record listening or skimming of the liner notes.

2) Pretentiousness is not the series forte. While the writers do choose to chronicle some universally agreed upon monumental albums (Pet Sounds and Let It Be for example) for the most part the authors and contributors are more interested in tackling the less obvious, under-hyped records (Nirvana’s In Utero over Nevermind, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn over Dark Side of the Moon) as well as lesser known picks (where else could you find an entire book devoted to the minister of weird, Tom Waits’, Swordfishtrombones or Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea).

3) The scribes range from well-known music journalists, scholars and even musicians (The Decemberists’ frontman Colin Meloy contributed a surprisingly disappointing self-indulged look at The Replacements Let It Be), giving each book a unique voice to tell the story of each album.

4) At eight to ten bucks a hit these books are cheap companion pieces to albums you already own or ones you may want to indulge in (and no I am not a savvy member of the company’s PR department, but rather a humble fan of the series who has been hooked ever since I discovered them two years ago).

5) Finally, with an entire history of noteworthy albums at their disposal and fans all around the world eager to learn more about the records that hold a special place in their hearts (the series’ official blog encourages readers to voice their opinions of which albums should be chronicled next), the possibilities for this series are endless.

The impressive canon so far is bound to provide at least something for everyone, from casual listeners to “High Fidelity”esque music elitists. Some books that I’ve read are disappointing (the daunting edition on Zeppelin’s IV spends more time discussing the mystery behind the band’s use of “zoso” mystic symbols/identities and fascination with the occult than the record’s conception or music) while other subject choices are a bit baffling (book #7 tackles ABBA Gold, a greatest hits compilation of the boisterous 70s Swedish band’s disco blahs and this December marks the release of a book examining Céline Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love). Still, because the series taps into every pop genre and sub genre spanning the second half of the 20th century, the books are in many ways a complete modern musical history told one signature album at a time.

Bookstores around the world are saturated with writings and ramblings on popular music. While an entire encyclopedia devoted to the career of Bob Dylan or the making of Revolver is warranted and welcome amongst avid music lovers, there is something comforting about the 33 1/3 series, which seeks out the less obvious album gems. Rather than utilizing pompous music historians the majority of this series channels the best music writers, the faithful fans.

We all have a short list of albums that truly changed our lives and what’s nice about this series is that there are others out there who share the same passions. For every Beatles or Stones aficionado there is someone who is equally passionate about a lesser-known group like The Minutemen (book #45 Double Nickels on the Dime) or Love (book #2 Forever Changes), or a singer songwriter like PJ Harvey (book #48 Rid of Me). The 33 1/3 series serves as a vehicle for the communal appreciation of great music going above and beyond the content found on the liner notes of the albums we love and cherish.

For more information on the series visit 33third.blogspot.com .

Closing on a Good Note


Glorious List-making

Last week on National Public Radio’s highly addictive rock and roll talk show “Sound Opinions” pop writers Greg Kot (Chicago Tribune) and Jim DeRogatis (Chicago Sun Times) discussed and listed their favorite album openers of all time. The two music geeks bantered over the importance of a solid opening track and put together an impressive short list of their personal picks–a diverse collection ranging from Aretha Franklin’s “Think” to N.W.A’s “Straight Outta Compton.” When the hour-long broadcast reached its close I started putting together my own mental list of songs that were ignored (for those curious The Rolling Stone’s “Rocks Off,” “Debaser” by The Pixies, Dylan’s “Tangled Up In Blue,” U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name,” Zeppelin’s “The Song Remains the Same,” and The Smith’s “The Headmaster Ritual” came to mind). Then I began pondering over an equally important roster of tracks; album closers.

The beautiful thing about a truly great album has always been the way it opens and closes. Similar to a great film or riveting literature, the best albums are the ones with opening tracks that draw you in and breathtaking final acts that reward you for your time and keep you yearning for more. Great closing tracks should in many ways sum up the albums meaning or bring closure to overall themes, the song should resonate with the listener long after its over warranting the albums revisit, and above all the album’s climax should blow the listener away.

Bruce Springsteen has long been revered as one of rock’s masterful storytellers and Born To Run conveyed the feelings of youth angst and romanticized life on the streets of the American city with a grandiose level of detail and perfection rarely heard on records today. The Boss’ “opera out on the turnpike” comes to an end with the magnificent “Jungleland,” a lush and evocative look at gang violence. The track is one of the greatest moments in rock history because it closes the record with an epic bang and showed us that after three albums Springsteen had finally found his niche as a socially conscious, everyman’s raconteur.

I’ve also noticed that some album closers serve as a mysterious peek into another side of an artist’s gamut. Nirvana’s Nevermind closes with the somber and haunting “Something in the Way,” a song that showed that Cobain could just as easily exorcize his inner demons with grace rather than rage. On Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, fiery blues-punk singer/songwriter P J Harvey broke away from her previous styles, introducing a new softer but equally poetic side. The album’s dreamy closer “We Float” is a ballad that isn’t afraid to showcase Harvey’s beautiful vocal range, which was absent on previous records that played up the raw side of this versatile artist.

Sometimes album closers serve as a window into a band’s future, giving us a taste of what’s to come or what else the band is capable of. In my personal experience this is often the case with breakthrough debut albums.

I’ll always remember the first time I heard Weezer’s breakthrough self-titled album (Blue) when I was just beginning to truly explore the world of music. Here’s a disc that even today remains a perfect album. It opens with the bang that is “My Name is Jonas” and finishes with the slow building epic “Only In Dreams,” a song that was such a complete 180 of the album’s previous straight pop cuts that it showed not only the band’s musical range but also the possibility that its follow up album may just be a horse of a different color (sure enough 1996’s equally masterful Pinkerton showed even more diversity in sound).

It’s become a bit cliché to say that in the day of digital music “the album is dead” and frankly this statement just is not true. Sure the way we listen to music has changed but the art of a solid album is still alive and well. Like you my iPod has a slew of random playlists and my car is littered with old mix CDs, however nothing beats the feeling I get after I’ve absorbed a carefully crafty and brilliant album. It’s through these riveting records that one can truly be transported into the artists world, even if just for 70-minutes.

Other notable closing tracks:
“Release”—Pearl Jam (Ten)
“Oh Yoko!”—John Lennon (Imagine)
“Subterraneans”—David Bowie (Low)
“Hurt”—Nine Inch Nails (Downward Spiral)
“The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”—Lauryn Hill (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill)
“A Day in the Life”—The Beatles (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band)
“Moonlight Mile”—The Rolling Stones (Sticky Fingers)
“Street Spirit (Fade Out)”—Radiohead (The Bends)
“Here Comes a Regular”—The Replacements (Tim)
“Havolina”—The Pixies (Bossanova)
“In The Back Seat”—Arcade Fire (Funeral)
“Africa”—D’Angelo (Voodoo)
“This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)”—Talking Heads (Speaking In Tongues)
“I Am the Resurrection”—The Stone Roses (The Stone Roses)
“Adore”—Prince (Sign of the Times)
“Reservations”—Wilco (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot)
“Reoccurring Dreams”—Hüsker Dü (Zen Arcade)
“I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)”—Stevie Wonder (Talking Book)