Saturday, February 19, 2011

PJ Harvey

Uxbal, the character played by Javier Bardem in "Biutiful," says his pick-up line when he met his future wife was "You have the most beautiful nose in the world." And one of the odd things that happens watching the film (one of several) is that after a while you actually begin to see it.

Not the smoothest lead-in, perhaps, to an account of the odd sensations generated by a new record, PJ Harvey's "Let England Shake," but part of the oddness is the feeling of being seduced by something you're surprised to find you even like. Some people I know would be liklier candidates to embrace Harvey. From a glowing review in the Guardian: "Somehow, the recent news that Harvey had frequently received career advice from the late Captain Beefheart didn't come as that much of a surprise." (UPDATE: Going back to the beginning and slowly working my forward I'm realizing just how wrong I was. "Patti Smith without the poetic BS and the self-indulgence," I said, off the top of my head. Not fair because it makes her sound derivative, and she's anything but. Still, a decent starting point.)

The songs on "Let England Shake" are all in some fashion about the British experience of World War I. Trench warfare and body parts hanging in trees. The lyrics seem to contain snippets of soldiers' letters home, possibly samples of Siegfried Sassoon. English folk melodies and folk instruments; Druidic drumbeats; tunes that would not be out of place on "The Thistle and the Shamrock." Echoing the Olde Weird England explorations of Alan Moore, Iain Sinclair and Peter Greenaway. Harvey's drawings related to the project -- the ones she displays during this recent TV interview, as well the seething image she created for the album cover -- recall Eddie Campbell's artwork for Moore's grisly graphic novel "From Hell."

(Click image twice to see full size.)

Of course, these textual observations will be irrelevant if you don't like the music. I find the album holds up way better than most to repeated playing, but YMMV.


Tulkinghorn said...

Wonderful record and as rooted in a sense of history as promised.

Punch and Judy!

She'd hate it, but I see this as classically conservative: an album that reeks of the Dorset coast.

There's a good brewery in Bridport, where she grew up, and Lyme Regis of John Fowles fame is about ten miles away.

Beer info here:

British beer is strongly flavored but with low alcohol. Perfect for sitting around all day drinking and talking, which Nancy and I did in Bridport about five years ago.

David Chute said...

No more conservative than Moore and company, unless an history automatically implies that. Moore found paganism, shamanism, etc. Dorset is also where the Chalk Giant and I think the Wicker Man come from, though I could be wrong about the latter.

From a Harvey bio:

"Situated on the south-west coast of England, nestled among the cluster of counties known as the West Country, Dorset’s rugged landscape and vast bleak moorlands are as thick with phantoms and folklore as the fogs that billow in from the English Channel.

"The county’s strong pagan heritage still makes its presence felt in local custom and lore, nowhere more so than in local landmarks such as the brooding burial mounds which litter the landscape and the ancient 180-foot chalk-carved Cerne Abbas Giant. Carved on the side of Trendle Hill, this ithyphallic deity is said to be named after the Celtic horned god Cernunnos, and fertility rites were conducted on its site for many years. It is a fierce symbol of male virility with its raised club and enormous penis, and when a local clergyman demanded the offending member of the Giant be ploughed over, the villagers stopped him, convinced their crops would fail. Now owned by the National Trust, the figure was scoured every seven years accompanied by an orgiastic festival of love-making until the Church intervened. But local couples are still said to pilgrimage by the light of the Full Moon to make love on its phallus, thus ensuring a healthy pregnancy. Yule festivities in some of the area’s smaller villages are still lead by the Dorset Woosers or Oosers, local men clad in animal skins and horned masks, keepers of ancient traditions that persist in spite of churchly condemnation. In fact, as recently as 1911 a Dorset newspaper carried a report of a local man being charged with frightening some young women while chasing them clad in a “bullock’s skin and wearing an ooser”. And a more grisly reminder of the county’s pagan past was provided by the excavation of a long barrow near the great Maiden Castle earthwork, which attracted widespread interest when it was found to contain human remains bearing all the hallmarks of ritual sacrifice and cannibalism.

"Yet the area has a gentler aspect in its desolate beauty and imputed Arthurian connections, Morris dancers and scrumpy. Indeed, this is the home of Ham Hill, the part of England made famous by Thomas Hardy, factors which have long combined with its thriving surf scene to attract many settlers in search of rural bliss. A few miles to the east of Crewkerne and a stone’s throw from the Cerne Abbas Giant, Corscombe is one of the more traditionally beautiful of local parishes, a sleepy 600-strong community that lies between two hills and boasts the beautiful St Mary’s Church and a telephone box, as well as the charming 16th Century Fox Inn public house. The Fox Inn is an award winning thatched pub that boasts a slew of traditional features including flagstone floors, inglenook fireplaces, beams, slate-topped bars and polished copper in abundance. With a regular clientele, many of whom have been drinking there for decades, the Inn is the village’s social focal point, painted cream and covered with roses in the summer, the veritable epitome of the rustic village pub, serving local produce which has earned the proprietors a deservedly high reputation."

There are PR photos for this record in which I thinks she's wearing one of those headdresses.

Tulkinghorn said...

When my working days are though, I plan to spend a certain amount of time chasing young women dressed in a bullock's skin and wearing an ooser... In fact, I might not wait for retirement.

Thanks for the response, I was afraid that the immediate connection between Dorset, beer, and conservatism was too eccentric even for the somewhat loose standards of the Hungry Ghost blog.

The most famous residents of Dorset these days are Hugh Fearnley-Whittington, the traditionalist food writer and Lord Fellows of West Stafford, Oscar winning screenwriter of Gosford Park and Downton Abbey. And now Polly Jean.