2007 / Music

Review: PJ Harvey Draws Simplified Song Sketches With ‘White Chalk’

British Alt-Rocker Trades Guitar For Piano On New LP

Since coming into prominence during the early ’90s alternative-rock rush, PJ Harvey has fostered an image as an iconoclastic, guitar-toting singer-songwriter. She has always been an artistic radical, but during those ultra-serious and dour grunge years, she was also a friendlier face (albeit one that sometimes wore a lot of makeup). As every Lollapalooza wannabe was detuning their bellowing, metallic guitars, she was a blues-ier and high-art-loving counterpoint to Kurt Cobain.

Photo: Island Records

Photo: Island Records

And in the eight studio albums that she has recorded since those heady days, Harvey has consistently pushed herself outside her creative comfort zone — test-driving other sounds, styles and modes of attack from album to album. But, it’s still somehow surprising that after releasing two of her strongest discs, 2001’s “Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea” and 2004’s “Uh Huh Her,” she would give herself another musical makeover for her latest disc, “White Chalk.” And this time, you might not recognize her at all.

The new record is essentially a completely new sound for Harvey and one that will unquestionably pose a challenge to listeners to get into. Luckily for her, it’s a record that grows more rewarding with repeat visits. Part of the initial obstacles inherent in “White Chalk” is that almost all of her musical trademarks have been stripped out. Aggressive guitar work, elastic vocals and snake-like grooves had become malleable and steadfast fixtures on all her preceding albums. They have disappeared. Instead, Harvey is using basic piano patterns and spider-web-thin vocals as her primary melodic vehicles.

Harvey’s switch from guitar to piano as her weapon of choice might just be traced back to one of her heroes. She has frequently cited avant-garde rock god Captain Beefheart as an important influence and this new record appears to take to heart an important lesson from his methods. Beefheart frequently boasted that he composed his jigsaw puzzle-like masterpiece, “Trout Mask Replica,” on the piano even though he had no clue how to play. While both Beefheart and Harvey share the novice’s enthusiasm for the instrument, the reclusive Beefheart obviously didn’t teach her his own clangy, hyper-syncopated approach to keyboards during the late-night phone calls the two have reportedly shared over the years. Her playing is rudimentary, but very melodic.

Her achievement on “White Chalk” isn’t how she bested the instrument, but that she reinforces the idea that compositional skills, not technical abilities, are the music world’s great equalizer. Similarly, another notable female singer-songwriter, Lauryn Hill, utilized just a handful of guitar chord progressions as the basis for a handful of near-great songs that appeared on her infamous two-disc “Unplugged” record.

The new songs are spare, sometimes brutally so. The arrangements are often as faint as Harvey’s whispered falsetto so that they could be likened to chalk-drawn sketches. Music-philes can hear easy parallels between these songs and those on Skip Spence’s cult classic, “Oar.” As is the case with “Oar,” greater familiarity with “White Chalk” allows listeners to hear moments of simple beauty that aren’t immediately apparent. The music recalls the girlish vocal whimsy and flowery strings of Joanna Newsom and can swiftly shift to the dark, instrumental bluntness specialized by ex-paramour Nick Cave.

In fact, one can easily imagine Cave having a warm feeling in his dark little heart because of a song like “Dear Darkness.” As Harvey bangs out a convoluted but intriguing piano melody, she softly croons verses that reveal a bleak existence. The lyrics are romantic and yet even the deepest love can’t escape the stain of the oppressive darkness that looms over the narrators. Is she singing about depression? Addiction? Death? She doesn’t specify, but she clearly wants revenge. “So now it’s your time/Time to pay/To pay me and the one I love/With the worldly goods you’ve stashed away,” she sings with uncharacteristic placidity. Just when you’d think there’s no escape yourself, a banjo and a man’s backing vocal supply join her for the chorus, adding some understated solace that commiserates and subtly uplifts.

Although the record squarely rests on Harvey’s ghostly vocals and piano, she does benefit from the assistance lent by the disc’s other instrumentalists as well as pin-drop quiet production masterminded by longtime collaborators John Parish and Flood. While Flood has been a near constant presence on her recent records, “White Chalk” is a reunion with Parish, who produced most of Harvey’s mid- to late ’90s output. Besides helming the mixing board, he also plays a half-dozen instruments that brilliantly but barely augment Harvey’s vision. Another contributor, keyboardist Eric Drew Feldman, also subscribes to this philosophy. Feldman was a latter-day member of Beefheart’s Magic Band and had previously toured with Harvey. One can see he maintains the sideman’s mentality by keeping his embellishments firmly in the shadows.

The best example of this self-effacing approach to collaboration can be heard on “When Under Ether.” Harvey plays one of the disc’s only true piano hooks — a little melody that twists and then criss-crosses on itself — and she sings with a flatness and deadpan that contrasts with the vivid imagery she is describing. Beneath the piano work, a batch of other instruments — acoustic guitar, keyboard, piano and drum — fill out and enrich what she lays out. In particular, Feldman’s Moog playing follows in the spirit of Bernie Worrell’s string-like keyboards on the best Parliament-Funkadelic cuts, but he’s nowhere near as outlandish.

Instead of relying on a solitary little piano run for a song, “Before Departure” builds on two complimenting patterns. The first is a melancholic piece that Thom Yorke and Radiohead might find familiar. The second melody emerges from the chorus and is more sophisticated. The blurred piano chords draw out and dress up Harvey’s vocals. She whispers the lyrics like she is running out of steam. A sympathetic concertina and secondary piano harmonize with her and keep her on a self-pitying course. The track is set up like she is closing out her set at Tom Waits’ favorite after-hours piano hangout.

“White Chalk” does represent a paradigm shift in Harvey’s approach to music. However, she wouldn’t be a sonic nonconformist if she didn’t veer from the new game plan. At the record’s heart, it features two tracks that have no piano, but share a stylistic kinship with the rest of the tracks. Harvey sings “Broken Harp” part acapella and part with a barely in-tune harp. The idea seems ludicrous and yet the music fades behind the sentiment that Harvey conjures with her vocals. Some of the lines could have been transposed from an old blues song. “Please don’t reproach me,” she sings wearily. Even better is the album’s title track, which comes across as part old folk ballad and part Beck imitation. An acoustic guitar leads listeners around as Harvey’s voice is awash in reverb, sounding like she’s calling from on top of an Appalachian peak. Like Bob Dylan’s “Visions Of Johanna,” the song sucks listeners into a nocturnal, surrealistic world where meaning is coded and landmarks are more representative than actual. While the setting of “White Chalk” is the rural English seaside instead of urban New York City and it isn’t the seven-minute epic that “Visions Of Johanna” is, the song likewise merits inclusion among the artist’s personal best.

Oddly enough, the same can be said for “White Chalk” as a whole, too. The album doesn’t boast any could-be singles like guitar-shredding classics “Man-Size” from “Rid Of Me” or “You Said Something” off of “Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea,” but represents the extent of Harvey’s skills as arranger and composer. She doesn’t include a dozen overdubs on these songs because she doesn’t need to. She set for herself a new challenge on this album and has crafted a work that might not always be easy listening, but is worth the effort. Listeners should meet this challenge, too. It’s the same Polly Jean Harvey that they’re familiar with, just with different makeup.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2007 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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