The Hope Six Demolition Project – PJ Harvey

Back in 2011 when ‘Let England Shake’ was released, Polly Harvey expressed a wish to be a war artist, a song-writer in residence for the conflict that still consumed Afghanistan. The presence of UK troops in the desert habitat was frequently referenced, notably in ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’. Harvey’s planned role never transpired, with UK forces withdrawn and the people of Afghanistan left to conduct their own fate. ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’ could be seen as Harvey adapting her job description to one of ‘reportage songwriter’, travelling to several locales, accompanying photographer/filmmaker Seamus Murphy, the man responsible for the evocative films that compliment every track on ‘Let England Shake’.

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England, yesterday

Maybe it’s this continuation of both the subject matter and approach from the previous record that means ‘Hope Six…’ doesn’t feel like a vast step up from 2011’s Mercury Prize-winning release. The thing that helped ‘Let England Shake’ was its tight focus on one or two connected subjects i.e. war and England. With her attention firmly on those themes, Harvey could make digressions and parallels but always keep her lyrics tethered to a detailed meditation on the ‘grey, damp filthiness’ of English culture. This was further enhanced by a cohesive new musical palette, although keen-eared fans will have heard harbingers of its sound coming in both ‘White Chalk’ and ‘A Woman A Man Walked By’.

Gone was Harvey’s theatrical bass blues howl, replaced with a lighter, more delicate voice at a higher register. Still she retained some of the ventriloquist act speaking in tongues, tics and squeaks that have been her trademark for a while.  The new vocal style  (Harvey calls it her ‘church voice’, good for singing ‘Jerusalem’, no doubt) continues on ‘Hope Six Demolition Project’ and it feels like Harvey is making a point about this new phase in her songwriting. She is no longer a spinner of fables and phantasmagoria, but an observer of the present day, a documentary troubadour. But it’s this insistence on veracity and simplicity that occasionally dents the album’s impact. In ‘The Orange Monkey’, Harvey seems to set out her MO for writing these songs ‘I took a plane to a foreign land/and said ‘I’ll write down what I find'”. Passing through various places and giving her impressions, at times the new lyrics feel as if they only observe the surface, and can veer close to the obvious.

I think Harvey is attempting to mirror the stark clarity of Seamus Murphy’s photography, and has decided to eliminate invented storytelling in order to hold true to that way of working. The listener is perhaps meant to read between the lines to find the impact these sights had upon Harvey, without the guidance of invented imagery or drama to convey their power. Perhaps though, even if fiction is ‘lying to tell the truth’, it might have served her better.  ‘Medicinals’, ‘A Line In The Sand’ and ‘The Community of Hope’ aren’t mistaken or misleading in their observations, just somewhat redundant. ‘Community of Hope’ talks of decay and social breakdown in a district of Washington State, but whilst the climactic refrain ‘They’re gonna build a Walmart here’ might’ve been cutting back in 1985,  today it’s just taken as read. ‘Medicinals’ sets up an interesting metaphor for history and progress, only to let it fall flat in the last verse. This is a shame because when Harvey’s eye chooses some really telling detail, the effects are strong indeed. ‘The Ministry of Defence’ pictures a diorama of wartime wreckage and shattered civilian ephemera, over-written by insistent marks of human survival. Likewise ‘Chain of Keys’ uses empty houses and overgrown gardens to hint at atrocities that will mark communities for ever.

Knocked back by the handful of misfiring lyrics, it took me a while to realise the true strength of ‘Hope Six Demolition Project’ is its music. Working with long time collaborators Mick Harvey, John Parish, producer Flood and the man for whom the phrase ‘super-talented multi-instrumentalist’ was invented, Terry Edwards, Harvey’s lyrics sit in distinct aural landscapes that open up further and allow deeper investigation with each listen. Saxophone is the latest in Harvey’s bucket list of musical instruments to master, following piano on ‘White Chalk’ and autoharp on ‘Let England Shake’. The brass supplants guitar effects pedals to drive the relentless extended intro to ‘The Wheel’, whilst the angular overlapping soloing in ‘Ministry of Defence’ combine with hammer-blow staccato guitar chords to conjure images of weapons firing and the results: twisted metal reinforcements exposed by mortar fire in a ruined building.

The drums on ‘Hope Six…’ are frequently martial in character, but there’s also a loose, clattering feel, the standard rock kit drum set up has been scattered across several players. It feels homemade, as if during her travels,  Polly has soaked up the sounds of public or folk music making in Kosovo and Afghanistan, as much as the sights. Insistent, slightly ramshackle, these rhythms could be drawn from weddings, funerals, festivals, marches and demonstrations. It was while watching Harvey’s set at Glastonbury this year that the new songs truly came into their own. Their syncopated energy hypnotises, and in the band Harvey has assembled she also creates a male voice choir for the ‘communal singing’ that she hoped ‘Let England Shake’ would inspire in audiences. The moment where this all comes together is toward the end of ‘River Anacostia’, with the crowd clapping a rhythm as the band come the front of the stage and sing a guttural cotton field chant. The longer it goes on, the deeper it goes into your ears and holds you until the song fades down to a standstill.

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‘Hope Six Demolition Project’ turns out to be a serious piece of work, albeit with flaws, showing an artist still moving forward musically if not on the lyrical front. If the album doesn’t make a bold statement of change in the manner of ‘Let England Shake’, I remember that ‘Uh Huh Her’, a release that appeared to tread water somewhat, was followed by the rug-pull of ‘White Chalk’. Maybe something like that album is brewing in Polly Harvey’s head right now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Emma Pollock – Live

Emma Pollock

Regather, Sheffield, 20th May 2016 

At various points in Emma Pollock’s set, we’re told ‘I think you’re our favourite audience of this tour’ and ‘I think this is the smallest stage we’ve played on’. Are the two related? Regather’s gig space has the band almost on eye level with a small but appreciative crowd, instruments and bodies squeezed tightly in at one end of the room. It makes for an intimate and ultimately very friendly live experience.

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A warm, funny and self-deprecating stage presence, Emma Pollock doesn’t keep much distance between herself and the audience, physical or metaphorical. Earnest, emotive singing rides on tunes by turns urgent, plaintive and poppy. The audience laughs as much as they applaud.

Showcasing only her second solo LP since the demise of Glasgow band The Delgados, Pollock’s singing maintains a thread between that band’s distinctive and adventurous guitar pop, often augmented with strings and wind instruments, to today’s tunes which range from urgent reverberating electric riffs to forlon acoustic guitar and piano building a climbing frame for often deeply personal lyrics.

Between songs Emma sets up the story behind the next tune, or she would do were it not for gremlins chewing at the cables, first frustrating the drummer’s ‘Blue Monday’ synth beats early on. The good natured Sheffield ribbing that results diverts Pollock onto quite a different track and a ping-pong game of banter grows throughout the gig.

One fan right at the front manages to monopolise then hijack the to-and-fro. A gentleman of respectable years, resembling a South Yorkshire cousin of David Hockney who’s just stepped off the deck of a canal boat, he encourages Pollock ‘you can sing about whatever you like, lass’, to the band’s bewilderment. When the alcohol in his bloodstream really takes the helm and moves him to sing ‘I Belong to Glasgow’, Emma peers down at her guitar’s fret-board and mutters ‘Oh, you’re not coming on the van now’.

The rest of the crowd aren’t about to let an over-refreshed guest ruin the party though, and the tracks from ‘Searching For Harperfield’ and ‘The Law Of Large Numbers’ hold the crowd in rapt silence. The heartfelt meditations of ‘Intermission’ and ‘Dark Skies’ draw out strong applause. At the other end of the spectrum, the combative pop of ‘Parks and Recreation’ and ‘Confessions’ with its fully functional synth drum pulse get heads nodding and broad smiles. Caught off guard by another salvo of Sheffielder wit, Pollock throws back her head and guffaws; a musician with no use for studied cool, her openness brings the crowd into her songs and deserves far more listeners outside of tonight’s gig.

http://emmapollock.com

 

Stage Fiends

Extracted from a longer review on my previous blog, here’s my thoughts on the Phantom Band’s return in 2014.

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The Phantom Band

The Deaf Institute, Manchester – 5th June 2014

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Don’t look into its eyes!

The Phantom Band get a warm welcome from their audience tonight, fuelled partly by the unexpectedly long wait for the new album ‘Strange Friend’. With the room filled with expectant faces, first there’s a small glitch to overcome. What should be the opening synth pulse of ‘The Wind That Cried The World’ is winding down into the sort of electronic burp that Kraftwerk might make after one bier too many. ‘So much for an entrance’ singer Rick Redbeard notes drily, as keyboard warlock Andy Wake coaxes goodwill from his recalcitrant musical machine-minds.

As soon as the band launch properly, it’s immediately obvious the time away hasn’t been squandered. There’s no image or pose to the Phantom Band. Rarely do they throw any shapes on stage – guitarist Greg spends most of the gig with back to the audience, deep in communion with his amp – instead they just turn up and play. If that sounds dull, don’t be fooled. As their albums have followed a steady evolution rather than what-shall-we-do-next box ticking, so they’ve grown strong and assured as a live band.

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Next week on ‘Most Haunted’.

Aside from one ‘smoochy’ number that showcases the band’s folk aspect, tonight the Phantoms have a head of steam to work off. The new songs are powered by confident, practised musicianship like drummer Iain Stewart’s thunderous but precise stick work that propels ‘Clapshot’. The self-confessed ‘creative friction’ that’s the engine for The Phantom Band’s beguiling music leaves their varied influences open for all to see, but they rub up against each other so well that each song becomes region-free and suggestive of many different and inviting musical roads that could be taken. Songs like ‘Women of Ghent’ have at their core enticingly danceable heartbeats so that it’s in no way outlandish to imagine a Phantom Band remix album occurring at some stage.

Out at the front, Mr Redbeard’s voice ranges from deep valleys to airy falsetto, arms often outstretched to the audience, like an old school crooner in full serenade or a poet declaiming verse. Occasionally the songs control Rick’s hands so he seems to be conducting, or executing a bit of prestidigitation before yanking a white rabbit from under his baseball cap.

In harmony with support bands Plank and Alpha Male Tea Party, who eschew vocals entirely, The Phantom Band end on a purely instrumental note, swapping instruments, juggling guitars and percussion to deliver a rousing version of ‘Crocodile’ from ‘Checkmate Savage’, poignantly and mysteriously re-titled on the set list as….’Cry Wank’. That’s the spirit.