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Song of the Day – Kate Bush: “Wild Man”

After 12 years between The Red Shoes and Aerial, and five-and-a-half between Aerial and Director’s Cut, Kate Bush is acting like it’s 1978 all over again and releasing two albums in one year. Next month sees the release of 50 Words for Snow, Bush’s first album of all-new material in six years (this spring’s Director’s Cut was an album of reworkings of previous songs.) The lead single, “Wild Man,” premiered yesterday and marries the lush layered style and synth hooks of her ’80s peak with the low-key, mellow harmonies and instrumentation of her 2000s work. The result is a serious grower: where Bush’s spoken verses initially seem underwhelming, repeated listening reveals it to be another rich, alluring release from a true original.

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Filed under: Art, Culture, Music, Music video, Pop, , , , ,

PJ Harvey on the Andrew Marr Show… with David Cameron

This morning, two-time Mercury Prize winner PJ Harvey appeared on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show for the second time. On her debut, in April 2010, she performed “Let England Shake” (when it was still using the Constantinople sample) in front of then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Today, in October 2011, she performed “The Last Living Rose” in front of current Prime Minister David Cameron, who informed us that his wife, Samantha, had “bought the album off iTunes” after Harvey’s Mercury win last month.

Here’s the video

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PJ Harvey’s deserving Mercury triumph

PJ Harvey has garnered an extraordinary amount of press attention and critical acclaim for her eighth LP, Let England Shake – most recently she has been awarded the Barclaycard Mercury Prize for a second time. Such has been the scale of Harvey’s achievement that the widespread coverage is bound to attract some new curious fans to the fold. So what makes Let England Shake so good, and is it representative of Harvey’s work as a whole?

The answer to the latter question is both yes and no. Each new LP Harvey delivers is different in some way, a progression from the work before – in other words, taking what she’s learned from one project and refashioning it into something new on the next. The raw, lo-fi blues rock of her 1992 debut Dry was succeeded by 1993’s even more raw, blistering punk-blues Rid of Me. Two years later, Harvey heightened the blues elements but in a much more sonically sophisticated, diverse framework on 1995’s To Bring You My Love before taking the hint of burbling electronics and uneasy effects to a new level on 1998’s Is This Desire?.

Keen to move away from such a dark sound, Harvey moved into a more straightforward rock territory on the Mercury Music Prize-winning Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000), which shared the power of her earlier records but married them to more refined melodies. Faced with how to follow such a commercial and critical high, Harvey deconstructed and turned in a self-produced, largely self-played “scrapbook” type of record on the scratchy lo-fi rock of Uh Huh Her (2004), which also introduced a more folk-inspired element to her work.

As strong as it may have been, Uh Huh Her signalled something of a creative dead-end for Harvey; her next move was inspired. Abandoning her trusty guitar, she composed on piano for the first time – some 15 years into her career – and the result was the spectral, spooky White Chalk, her most intimate record. Ever since, Harvey has been riding a creative wave and seems to be in the midst of a real purple patch. Her recent collaboration album with John Parish, A Woman A Man Walked By, brought back a scratchy blues-folk quality and Let England Shake seems to take some cues from there.

The biggest change is in the lyrical style; before, Harvey often used intriguing imagery, often visceral and sometimes Biblical, but since White Chalk there has definitely been a sense of the words having paramount importance. This is lyrically one of her strongest albums, cohesive and full of imagery of war and conflict. Rather than being a straightforward political album, Harvey imagines herself as a “war song correspondent,” delivering news from the front lines. Thus, there’s no political bias, more observations of war’s effects on humankind in general. Harvey has said that she read widely, from the poetry of Harold Pinter and TS Eliot to contemporary eyewitness accounts from people in Afghanistan and Iraq, and while the lyrics rarely go into specifics, there’s definitely the sense that Harvey has done her research and approaches such thorny topics with confidence and without a preachy tone.

The main reason the evocative lyrics have such resonance is in the way Harvey marries them to some of her most upbeat melodies and shimmering production. Largely eschewing the piano of White Chalk in favour of walls of guitars and, significantly, the autoharp, the instrumentation gives the album a unique, vaguely folk-tinged feel that feels both timeless and extremely fresh all at once. The music is full of vitality and energy and movement, and Harvey is backed by a sterling band that includes long-time collaborators John Parish and Mick Harvey on a variety of instruments and drummer Jean-Marc Butty, recording the album together over a five-week period in a Dorset church in the spring of 2010. The percussion is one of the most impressive parts of the album; it’s very rarely straightforward drum beats – Butty is incredibly inventive in how he provides the underpinning for these songs, which often feel very light and floaty thanks to the effects on the guitars (in prior work, Harvey’s guitar playing has mostly been very raw, very bluesy, very powerful; here it’s almost weightless, reminiscent of Cocteau Twins, and it’s a unique new flavour.)

Vocally too, she’s developing new phrasing techniques. The characterless voice she employed on White Chalk, pitched higher, is retained but has a much throatier quality; it’s still recognisably PJ Harvey singing, but a fresh new approach (and listen to the piercingly high soprano notes she reaches on “On Battleship Hill.”) Melodically, many songs have a very simple, sing-song quality that communicates the lyrics effectively and, especially when Harvey is singing some quite horrific lyrics, only adds to the impact. Thus, the devastating “Hanging in the Wire” is musically one of the softest and most beautiful songs in her catalogue, while “Let England Shake” has an almost jangly, hypnotic, skeletal Tom Waits-style autoharp/xylophone arrangement. “England” features a Kurdish folk song sample but the exoticism is in the melody alone, for the song is largely delivered solo on acoustic guitar, while “Written on the Forehead” is the album’s most shimmering number and features a surprising but wonderfully effective reggae sample.

Other highlights include the galloping urgency of “The Glorious Land,” which features dissonant bugle calls, the haunting, solemn “All and Everyone,” which features an inspired dirge-like coda that features some mournful saxophone, and the fast-rocking “Bitter Branches.” Lead single “The Words That Maketh Murder” features one of the album’s catchiest melodies and autoharp parts, also making use of handclaps and male vocals, while the immediately accessible “The Last Living Rose” ranks among Harvey’s most beautiful, simple songs. “The Colour of the Earth” ends the album on a communal, sing-song, anthemic tone.

Let England Shake is a landmark work. It’s not far and away Harvey’s best; she’s incredibly consistent and each of her records brings something exciting to the table, but Let England Shake has a cohesion and assurance – and originality – that really marks it out as something special. On first listen, some of the more unusual songs (such as “England” and the dissonant bugle calls in “The Glorious Land”) may be slightly off-putting, but repeated listening reveals this to be one of Harvey’s strongest and most unusual but beautiful albums. It slots nicely within her catalogue yet simultaneously feels like a real bold new step, and it is exciting to ponder quite where she will go next.

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The hit that should have been: Rickie Lee Jones’ “Woody and Dutch”

Rickie Lee Jones followed her eponymous 1979 debut a little over two years later with Pirates, an altogether darker and more ambitious affair that, three decades on, still sounds utterly glorious. It’s not a single-heavy kind of record but “Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking” was as good a choice as any, a sort of good-time bebop/R&B/jazz hybrid complete with invented percussion, handclaps, horns, and male backing vocals (alongside a suitably kittenish vocal from Jones) that’s almost like a logical step forward from the first album’s saucy “Danny’s All-Star Joint.”

The b-side, “Skeletons,” pares things back significantly to shine the spotlight on Jones’ spare, plaintive vocal/piano delivery (with some subtle, well-placed support from a string section.) Jones gives one of her most emotive vocal performances on this sad lullaby of love, life, and loss; it’s a complete mood change from the A-side but only serves to highlight Jones’ versatility and ability within various styles. Naturally, both these songs fit best on their parent album, which really is a stone cold classic, but as singles go it’s up there with Jones’ best.

Unfortunately it didn’t catch on in the same way that “Chuck E.’s in Love” did, and Jones would never again scale the commercial heights of the first record. But, as joyous and naughty and vibrant three decades later, “Woody and Dutch” still stands as one of Jones’ neglected classics.

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Song of the Day – Nerina Pallot: “Seventeen”

Nerina Pallot’s excellent new Bernard Butler-produced album Year of the Wolf was released last week, and finds Pallot’s expertly-crafted pop songs given a sophisticated, elegant, sumptuous vintage singer-songwriter pop sheen by the Suede guitarist. Imagine a more ’70s-minded update of his work on Duffy’s Rockferry LP and you’d be close.

But one of the surprises is that one of the best, and most inventive, of the songs can only be found on a deluxe edition offered on iTunes. “Seventeen” finds Pallot, ever the pop fanatic, channelling late ’70s slow disco with a gloriously languid groove and appropriately glossy production job that resembles ABBA’s Voulez-Vous, Steely Dan’s Gaucho, and songs like “Live It Up” and “Do the Dark” from Blondie’s Autoamerican, which all emerged on the cusp of the move from the ’70s into the ’80s.

It’s a very good, and very clever, pop song and here it is:

Filed under: Culture, Music, Music video, Pop, , , , , ,

Song of the Day – Blondie: “Fan Mail”

Blondie are, to my mind, one of the more underrated of the internationally successful groups of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Certainly, everyone knows “Heart of Glass” or “Call Me” or “Atomic” or “The Tide is High,” but I have often felt that the full extent of their experimentation, innovation, and originality has never been truly appreciated on a wider scale. A listen to any of their earlier records yields often surprising rewards. A favourite of mine is “Fan Mail,” the opener of 1977’s Plastic Letters, a spiky pop song with strange synth flourishes, stop-start rhythms, and of course Clem Burke’s crazy drumming.

For your pleasure, here’s a live version recorded for German TV

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Song of the Day – Nerina Pallot: “Put Your Hands Up”

The lead single from Nerina Pallot’s upcoming fourth LP Year of the Wolf is a classy pop confection produced by former Suede band member and current producer du jour Bernard Butler. The original, debuted live in concert last year, was faster paced and suggested more of a camp Eurodisco anthem but this studio version is pleasingly classy and elegant. In an ideal world, a sophisticated pop song like this would become a deserving hit. We’ll have to wait until its official release later this month to find out.

In the meantime, here is the video

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If you were wondering what Kate Bush looks like these days…

… Then look no further.

Kate Bush is back this spring with Director’s Cut, an unusual package that brings together new versions of songs that appeared on her albums The Sensual World (1989) and The Red Shoes (1993), keeping the “best” elements of the existing tracks while re-imagining others. So far, so mysterious – that is until Amazon jumped the gun a little and posted a 30-second preview clip of the new “Deeper Understanding,” originally from The Sensual World. What emerged was a sultry-sounding new vocal from Bush singing the “I press execute” line followed by a jarring and, frankly, terrifying computerised voice in place of the original angelic chorus of Bush and the Trio Bulgarka. It is a mark of her artistic fearlessness that a 30-second clip of a six-and-a-half minute song (around two minutes’ extension from 1989’s original) can provoke the mostly negative reactions it has among Bush fans so far, but really it makes sense for a song about computers to have a digitised voice in there somewhere. It remains to be seen (or rather, heard) how the other six minutes follow.

It’s an odd project, definitely, but both of these records that Bush is revisiting came at difficult points in her life. With The Sensual World, Bush was struggling with studio fatigue, having rarely been out of the confinement of the recording atmosphere for the best part of a decade, and had the problem of following two landmark artistic triumphs in The Dreaming (1982) and, commercially as well, Hounds of Love (1985). Then, The Red Shoes was beset by personal issues as Bush split from her long-time partner Del Palmer and suffered through the death of her mother Hannah, contributing to one of her less focused records. Still, she has expressed the opinion that these records contain some of her best work – so it makes sense for her now, with the benefit of two decades’ hindsight, to return to tinker with them with a fresh new approach. Whether Bush stretches even further back and undertakes a similar project with her other records remains to be seen, but the very arrival of any new Bush release is cause for celebration, giving her propensity for large gaps between records.

And for those who are disappointed at the lack of new new material, the official word is that Bush is working on brand new material. It’s on its way, people! In the meantime, let’s look forward to this fascinating new project, due for release in mid-May.

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PJ Harvey on The Culture Show 2011

PJ Harvey’s appearance on BBC2’s The Culture Show, on February 10, 2011

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Billie Holiday – Lady Sings the Blues (1956)

Published in 1956 and ghost-written by William Dufty, Billie Holiday’s autobiography “Lady Sings the Blues” was later made into an Oscar-nominated film and has perpetuated some of the myths surrounding Holiday’s eventful life. But while Dufty may be ghost-writer, make no mistake that this is Billie in her own words. The streetwise phrases, the patois, the slang, it’s all there. What emerges is a distinctive narrative voice. It is perhaps a cliche to say it reads like a diary, but more than any other autobiography I have read there’s a real closeness, intimacy, and a complete lack of holding back.

So what, if these are Holiday’s words, was Dufty’s role? A writer and editor at the New York Post, Dufty was married to Billie’s friend Maely and the book was written from conversations with the singer at the Duftys’ New York apartment (as well as from previous interviews.) But it’s so clearly Billie that you almost forget Dufty’s involvement beyond editing and fashioning it into a presentable, readable state (but Dufty does deserve major credit for bringing the book to life.)

Billie comes across as tough and streetwise but with a heart of gold. There may be factual inaccuracies along the way (her mother and father are not believed to have married, and were a little older than the book states) but the voice is so vivid and absorbing. “Lady Sings the Blues” takes us from the poverty of her Baltimore childhood through her spell in a Catholic reformatory institution after she was molested as a child to the bright lights but harsh realities of Harlem, where Billie found herself in jail for prostitution and then became a surprise star on the Harlem club scene.

We learn all about the advent of her singing career, tempered by episodes of horrifying racism, ill-fated relationships, and heroin addiction that, after her one-year jail term in 1947-48, cost her lucrative spots in New York night clubs. In between there are numerous delightful episodes with a surprise cast of characters including Clark Gable, Sarah Vaughan, and Lana Turner, and asides about her views on drug addiction and the healthcare system of America compared to Europe. The chapter about her European tour in 1954 is one of the book’s most heart-warming and heart-breaking at once; here is a woman filled with joy and excitement about going to Europe and finding herself genuinely surprised and delighted by the positive reception she gets, the warm-hearted fans, the knowledgeable critics, and the newspapers that do not skew her words.

It’s a book I couldn’t put down. Vivid and full of life to the last, it seems to echo Billie’s policy of dusting herself off and carrying on. There’s no preaching or self-pitying, and while the story is often unbearably tragic, Billie herself never comes across as a tragic figure. She’s tough, she’s smart, she’s funny, but she’s never tragic or miserable. In the end, it’s a pretty inspirational story. The fact that she died only three years after its publication adds an extra poignant note to proceedings. It’s difficult to get cold hard facts about a life as tangled and shrouded in mystery and myth as Billie Holiday’s, but “Lady Sings the Blues” is a wonderful companion to her music and, with an enlightening introduction and short essay on the picks of her discography by critic David Ritz, this 50th anniversary edition is the way to go.

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