PJ Harvey – “Let England Shake” (2011, Island/Vagrant)
Reviewer: Tony Paese
This review originally was published on Tony’s personal blog.
It is his first of what should be many reviews for “Hear! Hear!”
- – - – -
Punk rocker PJ Harvey had never really impressed me. Despite essentially universal acclaim from critics on everything she has ever released, as well as a solid fan base, I would give her stuff a listen and shrug it off with the same “Eh” I give so many critically lauded records (i.e. Psychocandy, Kid A, anything released by U2…). But I decided I would give Harvey’s latest work, Let England Shake, one listen-through in the hopes that she might surprise me. And surprise me she did.
I expected to have to sift through twelve tracks of typical Harvey – aggressive, angular, guitar-heavy ballads infused with low, whisper-sung verses which are then followed by choruses that explode out of nowhere to force you into turning the volume down several notches so that your eardrums don’t break. Fortunately, that’s not at all what I heard. In fact, track number one, the title track, begins with what I think might be a xylophone. A xylophone, drums, and a guitar that is seemingly hidden away in a dimly-lit corner so as to allow some other sounds to take the spotlight for a while. Never has she sounded more refined and detail-oriented.
Harvey’s voice is also dramatically changed. A more controlled, quavering fairy-call that made her sound practically sweet compared with the forceful punk-rock bellows that punched holes through her previous records. The change lends a tone of mysticality that fits in perfectly with the instrumental changes as well as the album’s main theme.
The theme of the album is war. For some reason I kept imagining snapshots of the Revolutionary, despite repeated references to battlegrounds on English soil. The lyrics are a little gruesome at times, as per her usual, but the concept as a whole is pretty cool this time. Word-wise I think Harvey has taken a serious step forward. What truly makes this a great war record, however, is the drumming. Some tracks are marching songs (“The Words That Maketh Murder”, “The Colour of the Earth”), and I can clearly see armies chanting along and stomping to the beat. Others emulate the battle itself, frenzied and chaotic (“Bitter Branches”). Moments in tracks such as “On Battleship Hill”, where Harvey’s voice reaches a trippy, almost ethereal pitch, hearken back to ancient battlefields (this time more like the soundtrack to a Lord of the Rings movie) where soldiers wield swords in slow motion and martyrs for the good guys last just long enough to say goodbye once the battle is over.
Now it wouldn’t be PJ Harvey without some badass guitar dominating at least one track. That track is “Bitter Branches”, one of my favorites. Most reminiscent of her previous albums, the song is a lament for the wives of soldiers leaving home for war. “Young wives with white hands / wave goodbye. / Their arms as bitter branches / spreading into the world,” accompanied by the low, angular, catchy-bass-line-ish guitar (sorry about that, I really don’t know how to describe it any more eloquently than by making up that ridiculous word) that I’ve come to associate her earlier work with. The result is a powerful, heart-wrenching war ballad that still kicks some serious punk-rock ass.
Make sure to stick around for the last two tracks – they are the best. “Written On the Forehead” is a murky, swirling mix of electric guitar, spacey vocals from Harvey, and a strange chant in the background from a chorus repeating the phrase “Let it burn, let it burn, let it burn burn burn.”, while “The Colour of the Earth” features a male vocal lead which fits perfectly with the song and with the record as a whole.
The musical icing on this rock-n-roll cake is the fact that there is not one weak track. That’s pretty rare. Each tune is completely unpredictable and each keeps the listening interesting with a wide range of instruments and backing vocals. The album as a whole is a rocker, beautifully laced with sonic peculiarities and the gravities of war. My enjoyment increases with each listen, and I would love nothing more than to see it become a landmark in British rock-n-roll history. I am, at the very least, quite comfortable saying that Let England Shake is my favorite album, British or otherwise, to have been released in the year of 2011.
Year of the Album — #062
Matthew Good – “Lights of Endangered Species” (2011, Universal)
Matthew Good has never become much of a force in the US, despite his music being legendary in Canadian alternative music circles for two decades. Much like fellow Canadian rocker Raine Maida, of Our Lady Peace, Good’s music has had to find more of a niche audience in America, but the music above all else has maintained an incredible depth of quality through the years. On Lights of Endangered Species, his fifth and potentially final solo album, the varied strains of his musical genius have come together in an act of total sonic combustion, and the result is nothing short of phenomenal. This is a budding mid-year contender for my favorite album of the year, and it’s Good’s best work to date.
Good has always been a lyrical beast, the background music taking a backseat to his indelible bend of cultural commentary and raw vitriol. With Lights of Endangered Species, he has shifted his focus to the music itself, and these arrangements burst out of the speakers as the most incredible arrangements he’s ever had to back his vocals. Fully orchestrated in a way he’d attempted to achieve since forming the concept during the mid nineties, these are complex, fully developed sonic palates on which he can paint subtlely with his words. The result is his best-developed album, providing long-term listeners with the perfect album he’s frequently hinted at but never quite managed to deliver.
From the opening drum and piano strains of “Extraordinary Fades,” it is monumentally clear that this, if it is sadly to be his last album, is certainly Good’s masterpiece. His haunting vocals work their way in and out of the tense strings and thundering bass: “Lie and say to me extraordinary fades,” he begs, and the music swells to envelop him with open arms. He sings of his battle with bipolar disorder on “What If I Can’t See The Stars, Mildred?” spitting the words with raw power over bass and piano, building to a thundering climax. “If I look crazy, wonder what the fuck’s with everyone?” he snarls. “Do you walk out the door? Baby you gotta do what you gotta do. I end my day, picture a house on fire … on fire … on fire.” It’s a raw, blistering cut to the quick, and Good’s up to the challenge. The result is an example of concept meeting perfectly with execution, forming a track I personally won’t soon forget.
If I haven’t sold you on this album to this point, it’s not going to happen. Move along, rejoin your quiet existence and forget that Matthew Good was ever spoken of. The rest of you reading out there should immediately find a copy of this album as quickly as you can. Dig into it voraciously, listen to the songs up close and personal, give the music a chance to assert itself and prove the true depth of this magnificent album. Matthew Good has outdone himself with Lights of Endangered Species, an album which is going to prove for years to come why he’s been one of the few true musical geniuses of the last twenty years. If this is his last, it is worthy exit music and one of the best albums you’ll hear from anyone in 2011.