Anna Calvi – ‘Hunter’

When a new album arrives from an artist that you’ve basically fallen in love with, there’s a huge tension and anticipation at work. Will it not just match what’s come before, but improve on it? Or will it break the spell that’s fed your obsession up to this point? That’s how I felt about ‘Hunter’ arriving after the years-long break since ‘One Breath’. Barring an EP of cover versions and a moment when Calvi seemed to be involved with the fashion industry more than music, I was nervous about what would fill that silence.

Hype is a dodgy little drug, to be consumed with great care. The first interviews set out Calvi’s stall: the album was a statement about freedom of gender and sexuality. That was a message I could get behind: in fact one that chimes with me intensely. However, rightly or wrongly, I harbour instinctive scepticism about musicians who were not previously outspoken discovering politics. If you’re Sleaford Mods, it’s there in the musical DNA from the outset. Before Hunter’s release, I worried about how the message Calvi had decided to convey would  sit with her music. Out of context from the rest of the album, ‘Don’t Beat The Girl Out of My Boy’ sounded a bit on the nose. In addition I needed a few listens to adapt to what sounded at first like Eighties production bombast – the crashing drums, the stadium-sized vocal reverb.

However, another bigger however: when I listened to the entire album properly, it’s clear Calvi’s voice is still present, and even more commanding than before. Her ‘statement’ runs through her voice and guitar like her blood.

That said, the first track ‘As A Man’ doesn’t quite convince:  it’s musically low-key, almost as if it’s meant to bridge other, bigger tunes later in the album. “Don’t Beat The Boy…” is the obvious choice of opener, but maybe that’s the point. This album is deftly sequenced, building steadily and with implicit confidence. Once title track ‘Hunter’ gently but firmly pulls you close, it’s clear ‘As A Man’ serves as an overture to the whole. From that point on we’re led through a musical progression with no excuse to step away.

Beginning with a series of cinematic images of Calvi finding power in adorning herself before heading out on the prowl, ‘Hunter’ surges and sighs like a lost Bond theme. In fact, several tracks seem to be waving a calling card at Barbara Broccoli, murmuring “Call me, forget that ‘relevant’ Stormzy/Dua Lipa duet you were banking on”. Ending like waves rolling onto a Nassau beach, it allows ‘Don’t Beat The Girl Out Of My Boy’ to strut out of the surf toward its rightful place in the scheme of things. The first anthem – that word used without qualification or irony – of the album, cheerfully it storms the ramparts, fluttering standard aloft, in aid of Joy As An Act Of Resistance (thanks, Idles). This is a song for just after the sexual/gender revolution, the border checkpoints open, Calvi hurling vocal rather than guitar fireworks into the night sky. ‘Indies Or Paradise’ absorbs the previous song’s afterglow, using it as fuel to alternately chug through the jungle or soar stratospherically above swooning crowds, with just one star-shell of caterwauling fret-botherage.

With a sound looser and and more expansive than before, still there’s no bluster or hollow, unearned bombast. Clocking in at just over forty three minutes, ‘Hunter’ fits neatly on the sides of a vinyl album and doesn’t outstay its welcome. Calvi and her fellow players haven’t lost any of their capacity for slow-burning tension and whip-tight theatrical dynamics. The lyrics are pared down, staying out of the way of the music, allowing Calvi’s voice room to mediate them into another instrument in service of the song. The lyrics are the script, the music the director allowing Calvi to find her light and come right down the lens at you.

To these ears at least, as with previous albums, ‘Hunter’ draws inspiration from then blows kisses back at the ghostly reverb and valve-state twang of John Barry, Ennio Morricone and Angelo Badalamenti.  Other influences/loves on show are the late Black Star himself – is that a cheeky little reference when ‘Chain’ is pronounced ‘Ch-ch-chain!’ – and ‘Wish’ features high-pitched breathy gasps straight off Suicide’s ‘Ghost Rider’.

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Sometimes it’s the imperfections of a voice that makes it distinctive. At the same time, there’s a place for a technique and discipline. Hitting a note exactly can pierce the listener’s heart: Calvi’s clarity and power first overwhelm then boost you skywards, or slay and disintegrate with a trailing, wounding sigh. She clearly loves the physical act of singing and is determined to use that faculty to make you feel whatever she’s feeling. Possessed of an enviable vocal range, here she never sounds like she’s straining. Perhaps one reason is that there’s less resort to the ultra-deep, rather theatrical bass tone from the first two albums. Like an actor using an accent different to their own, it’s twice as much work, maintaining the voice whilst giving a performance on top of it. Maybe not having to dig for those notes allows her even greater precision and emotional clarity.

‘Hunter’ gives voice to visceral, beautiful dreams and wishes for physical and emotional liberty. It’s rare for an album to capture my attention so completely from the first listen. I’m really looking forward to hearing these songs ‘in the flesh’, in a couple of weeks time. Here’s hoping the wait for Calvi’s next work won’t be quite so long.

 

 

 

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Civil War Correspondent

 PJ Harvey, Victoria Warehouse Manchester, 3/11/16

“The woman’s old/the woman’s old and dressed in black…”

Clad in swishing lengths of draped black, a black leather micro skirt and black-feathered skull cap, tonight Polly Harvey cuts a figure that exists somewhere in a venn diagram  which overlaps goth rock chick, voodoo witch doctor and – what’s she probably aiming for – carrion crow. The war reportage of Let England Shake and The Hope Six Demolition Project took her to Kosovo, scene of the meeting with the elderly gatekeeper in ‘Chain of Keys’, the song which opens proceedings tonight at the packed Victoria Warehouse.

Since the Uh Huh Her tour, Polly Harvey’s last major trawl across venues in support of an album, her appearances have become distinctly hand-picked. Inevitably this means that if you want to see her, it’ll be in fairly large capacity venues. The management of Victoria Warehouse know this too obviously, as the ‘8:15 prompt’ stage time on the tickets comes and goes, people are still streaming in, despite the auditorium being pretty solid from front to back. Bad luck if you’re stood behind someone tall or with a particularly impressive haircut. Meerkat head action and ballet en pointe footwork is required at times to keep an eye line on Polly, particularly when someone raises their mobile phone in benediction to record eyewitness footage that won’t make a bit of sense when viewed the next morning. This kind of thing can drag you out of the spell at a gig, but thankfully the show that follows is so confident and distinctive you’ve little choice but to stay involved. By the end, PJ Harvey has played for the best part of two hours, with no support band.

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If you read the publicity for this tour, the names of renowned stage directors, lighting and costume designers might have led you to expect some kind of Pink Floyd multi-media blow out. Or more likely, something in the hinterland of Harvey’s friend and musical contemporary, Bjork. What it actually means is a rock show staged with a spare but pointed sense of theatre. Starting as is now customary, with the band trooping onstage to a martial snare drum beat and saxophone drones from Polly and Terry Edwards, ‘Chain of Keys’ and other songs from  The Hope Six Demolition Project are to the fore in the first half. As the gig progresses, the set list makes sorties back in time, first to Let England Shake, for several songs that have quickly become popular standards in Harvey’s canon. From then, back again to the underrated but pivotal White Chalk.

Slower tracks like ‘Dollar Dollar’ and ‘To Talk To You’ from White Chalk allow Harvey’s voice to expand and encompass the audience in a way that her higher pitched singing elsewhere, subservient to her new mission of documentary song making, perhaps doesn’t. The long term fans welcome the return of vintage songs and along with them, the deep blues moan that she seems to have consciously and permanently abandoned in new material. It’s a mark of just how far Polly has come and her determination to keep moving forward, that when she switches back into old Polly-phonic blues-wailin’ mode, its theatrical nature is even clearer than when she first sang these songs. Harvey relishes the melodramatic howl of ‘To Bring You My Love’, stretching the word ‘love’ into an operatic vibrato so long it’s almost a standing wave. Paradoxically, the oldest song Polly plays tonight, ’50ft Queenie’ suits her new band to a tee, a celebratory thrash by multiple punk Bo Diddley’s, powered by booming multiple bass drums. It’s probably the song that would accompany the opening titles if Nickleodeon ever make an animated series based on Harvey’s rock life.

Arranged to suit the large band full of eloquent and seasoned players, the old songs are infused with new energy, in particular thanks to Terry Edwards, Saxophone Hero. The newest songs give centre stage to sax over guitars, and Edwards’ two spotlight moments on ‘Ministry of Defence’ and ‘Ministry of Social Affairs’ bring proceedings to a standstill while the audience applauds his virtuoso Cubist jazz skronk. The punishing sax and guitar salvos of ‘Ministry of Defence’ echo off the walls and the stark backdrop, a trompe l’oeil abstract of tessellated squares, suggesting brutalist concrete architecture seconds away from being demolished by munitions. One stray round already seems to have taken out the traditional drum kit set up and scattered individual components across the stage. These are salvaged by the nine strong band who then use them to reassemble rhythms, held together with syncopated hand claps.

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It wasn’t long after Harvey’s initial success, amid the guitar effects pedal bull market of the early 90s, that her sense of the theatrical came to the fore and allowed her to stand out from her peers. Utilising strong visuals and styling courtesy of Maria Mochnacz, Polly Harvey maintained a protective distance between herself and audience and critics thirsting after autobiographical trauma. When I first saw her perform in 1993 at the Duchess of York in Leeds, Harvey said little between songs and let the music do the talking. Nothing’s changed there, apart from an occasional thank you for applause and introducing the band by name. As she sings, Polly in her inky costume emphasizes the lyrics with precise, carefully chosen gestures and occasional dance moves. In fact not quite dance, it’s almost sign language, like BSL translation inverted to form unreadable subtitles to the action unfolding before your eyes.

The only part of the traditional gig circus that survives to crawl out from under rubble tonight is the encore. Encores are my personal pop bugbear, a ritual that’s long since emptied of meaning. After the show they’ve just seen, I’d have thought the crowd could leave it as it stands, or at least put the effort in and sustain riotous applause until the band are forced to return in order to satisfy them. Certainly they were prematurely eager to clap over the deliberately extended fade out to ‘To Bring You My Love’; still Polly and her band of brothers dutifully reassemble to give the audience their money’s worth. This takes us through a rollicking version of ‘Highway ’61 Revisited’, before leading straight into a slow, simmering curtain ringer of ’The River’ from Is This Desire?

Lights up, the packed crowd breathes out, spreads and disperses,  finishes their £5 pint, retrieves their £2 worth of coat and goes to queue for their £n of taxi cab away from the red brick cavern of Victoria Warehouse. Most of the crowd who made it inside the auditorium went home happy, but none were happier than the venue management who managed to fit two audiences where only one should be. It seems to be what you have to do if you want to see your musical heroes these days. Polly Harvey once joked that she’d probably end up eighty and toothless playing blues for drink in the back of a pub somewhere.  Am I alone in actually looking forward to that gig?

It Was Acceptable In The Nineties #6 – Jane Weaver

This interview was one of myweaversmall first for The Big Issue, and as I remember our chat didn’t exactly generate a mountain of scintillating copy. I put that down to my inexperience and think some additional interviewing must have happened before publication. This might explain the weird bit of Kate Bush-bashing at the end. Whilst not a fan of Bush at the time, I don’t remember actively disliking her, or Peter Gabriel for that matter! Weaver is one of the few performers I interviewed who’s still active today. Looking up her discography , it seems I spoke to her just before she recorded her solo debut album ‘Supersister’ in 1998. However, the death of Manchester Records boss Rob Gretton soon after stymied Weaver’s plans for that album and it  remains unreleased.

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Ask any number of singers what drives them to perform before a room full of strangers and you’ll probably be met with initial bemusement and then the assertion that it ‘just feels right’. But when Jane Weaver began her career at college in Liverpool, singing cover versions at revue nights, she didn’t have that luxury; it didn’t feel right at all.

“People would say ‘You’ve got a sweet voice, get up there’. And I used to hurl in the toilets before going on, I’d be shaking really bad”, remembers the now self-assured singer as she watches the world go by through the windows of Manchester’s Dry Bar. Luckily for the lining of her stomach, things have changed as Weaver has grown more accustomed to performing live. “I don’t hurl, but I still get nervous”, she laughs, drawing on an ever-present cigarette. “Being on stage is dead scary but it’s quite thrilling”.,

That heady shot of adrenalin propelled her in front of a microphone with erstwhile indie contenders Kill Laura. The combination of gritty power pop and Weaver’s implacable tones gained them a live reputation to be reckoned with, and a bit of radio airplay. But like many others before, the band were dropped by their record label. Although initially devastated, the experience hasn’t dampened Weaver’s craving for the pop life.

‘Cinnamon Brow’ – Kill Laura (John Peel Session)

“At the end of the day it’s a business and you do have to separate yourself from that and not let it affect your creativity”.

But it’s only natural that after such a rejection you would want to take stock and figure out what you’re going to do with yourself and it was the same with Kill Laura. By the time they were finished, singer and band had parted company, with it seems the archetypal ‘creative differences’ playing their usual role.

“I couldn’t do a lot of acoustic stuff, because there wasn’t a lot for the band to do” she explains reasonably. “I wanted more of a free rein to what I wanted. I think as a solo artist you can do that, you can have the album with a lot of different sides to it. It’s a lot more difficult in a band”.

Even so, poised to record her first solo album, there’s still a question mark over exactly where Jane Weaver wants to roam. The big, raggy-arsed guitars and nomadic melody of the new CD Scream and Shout aren’t a million miles away from the muscular fret-stomping of her first single We Are Modern. Up against her more recent interest in electronic music, leans the strength of long-cherished guitar heroes like Neil Young and Teenage Fanclub. It’s possible even Weaver doesn’t know where she’s going yet, but whatever route she chooses, it’s feeling and not technique she values.

“I don’t know what I’m playing half the time: I make up chords”, she says, candid to a fault. “I’m frightened of learning what I am playing because I might start thinking about it too much”.

Again, it’s the answer you’d expect from a songwriter anxious not to strangle her muse. Weaver’s attitude to writing lyrics is completely the opposite, comparing it unfavourably to school homework.

“They come at the very last minute, at the eleventh hour. When I’m in the studio, they’ll go: ‘Right, vocal takes’ and I’ll go ‘Can you give me another ten minutes until I’ve actually written them?’ I ended up waking up in the middle of the night, writing a chorus and then going back to sleep, I was so worried that I had to finish all these songs”. And songs are what truly matter to Jane Weaver.

All the singers Weaver lists as heroes are women notable for doggedly pursuing their individual musical path through great songs: Patti Smith, Courtney Love, Kate Bush. Kate Bush?

“The first album I ever got was The Kick Inside, she remembers, lighting up another fag. “I wanted to be Kate Bush. It was just so weird and bizarre, watching her on telly dancing about”.

A Kate Bush fixation we can handle, just so long as she doesn’t begin working with Peter Gabriel. [see what I mean? AM]

 

 

 

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