Music Review: PJ Harvey & John Parish's A Woman a Man Walked By

by Rick Rockwell

Ever since the early 1990s, PJ Harvey has been making music with impact. Supposedly, her debut Dry (1992) was a favorite of the late Kurt Cobain, and certainly her songwriting and attitude gave the latter stages of grunge a boost. Even before her debut, Harvey was making music with John Parish in his band Automatic Diamini. Harvey and Parish have collaborated numerous times since, including the co-billed Dance Hall at Louse Point (1996). Also, Parish produced Harvey’s breakout To Bring You My Love (1995) and White Chalk (2007).

So from the start, there’s a sense of familiarity that floats about this second co-billed effort from Harvey and Parish, A Woman a Man Walked By.

“Black Hearted Love” the first single from the release, which kicks off the album, transports the listener back to the mid-90s when Harvey and Parish could do no wrong. The song is as incendiary as a hot coal smoldering: a dark, minor key tale of love and mortality scored by an orchestra of skittering, edgy guitars.

This sets the tone appropriately for what will follow.

And what follows is an experimental tribute to Harvey’s musical heroes. On many of the songs, Harvey’s vocals seem to be channeling other voices. In the past, she has damned critics for comparing her to poet and punk priestess Patti Smith, but her delivery on a number of songs certainly has Smith’s tonality. However, a closer listen reveals one of Harvey’s acknowledged influences: none other than Captain Beefheart.* Harvey has always wanted to sing and compose like a female version of that psychedelic-blues-rock artist, and she certainly carries it off here. The profane title track recalls Frank Zappa’s “Willie the Pimp” (which featured Captain Beefheart on vocals) or any number of tracks from Beefheart’s underground classic Trout Mask Replica. Harvey’s barking aggressive rant on “Pig Will Not” is a nod to “China Pig” from Trout Mask Replica if not various other Beefheart tracks, which use porcine imagery and canine vocal ferocity. (Harvey credits Beaudelaire’s “The Rebel” with inspiring the song.)

And then there’s “April” which recalls another of Harvey’s heroes, Bob Dylan.** Parish arranges the musical backdrop on “April” to accent this comparison, with Eric Feldman’s organ pushed forward in the mix (the album is engineered by Flood† a long-time collaborator with Harvey and Parish). The song would fit Dylan perfectly, circa Highway 61 Revisited. (Long-time Harvey fans will note she covered the title track of that Dylan classic on her grungiest release Rid of Me.)

After all this, if the listener gets the idea they are on one long musical ride back through the 90s with the center of the universe set at the mid-60s then they are likely appropriately grasping Harvey and Parish’s intent. Some critics seem unmoved by A Woman a Man Walked By, saying it is too familiar, not cutting new ground. Given the deep literary and musicological waters Harvey and Parish ask a listener to navigate on A Woman a Man Walked By, the best way to see this new release is just the latest musical island set on a wide panoramic sea these two musicians have been charting since they began performing together almost two decades ago.

And this new release is not easy sailing. Harvey’s lyrics and Parish’s soundscapes are disturbing and provocative. The album concludes with a bit of a musical couplet: the funereal “Passionless, Pointless” carving a lyrical death mask, while “Cracks in the Canvas” lapses into spoken word mourning.

To their credit, Harvey and Parish have wrought another multifaceted musical puzzle that will take many listens to completing unlock.

*Captain Beefheart is the stage name of Don Van Vliet.

**Of course, Bob Dylan started out first as Robert Zimmerman.

†Mark Ellis goes by the pseudonym Flood.

(Promotional photo of PJ Harvey & John Parish from Island Records. Harvey & Parish open their European tour with an appearance in Brighton, UK on April 15. To see the video for "Black Hearted Love," please check below.)

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Anonymous said...

damn! seriously the best review I've read of this album yet. and I thank you!

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