Live Review: PJ Harvey @ The Apollo, Manchester (08/09/11)

PJ Harvey live

photo by Phil King

Of course PJ Harvey had to win the Mercury prize. No one in the current music scene in the UK can touch her right now: Everything Everything, Adele, Tinie Tempah, Metronomy…they sound quite lame next to PJ’s brilliance and creativity.

So, it seems fitting that no support act was chosen to open for PJ Harvey tonight – it’s all about “Peej” and her music here at the Manchester Apollo (which is not 100% sold out, surprisingly). Even the merch stall looks a bit bare – some tour t-shirts and a few copies of her album (on vinyl only): no badges, no CDs, no old albums…looks almost as if Polly Jean Harvey can’t be bothered with such frivolities that, increasingly, are more important to contemporary acts. Like I said before, tonight is truly just about the music.

And, boy, is she on a league of her own. Nineteen years since her debut album, Dry (1992), PJ Harvey still manages to sound vital and able to renew her music with each new release.

The set consists mostly of songs off her latest album, Let England Shake, that sound punchier live than on record, and all seem very short, too. By third number, shouts of “We love you, Polly” coming from the audience will be heard intermitently during the rest of the evening. The atmosphere is dark and sober, but, surprisingly, never tiresome or melancholic. Obviously not as rock’n’roll as the Uh Hu Her tour, but quite more upbeat than the solitary performances she did promoting her previous album, White Chalk.

PJ stands on a corner of the stage, far apart from her three-piece backing band (which includes long time collaborator John Parish) who stand tightly on the opposite corner.The stage lights are simple, stark, and Polly Jean drifts in and out of the spotlight throughout the set, almost like a ghostly apparition. All very theatrical.

But despite this only concession to theatrality, the delivery is always very no-nonsense, very direct, with no chatter between band members or with the public, and the music is always very simple, and very tightly played, with the highlight being always her amazing voice.

When she finally plays some of the old songs, especially Down By The Water and C’Mon Billy (from 1995’s To Bring You My Love) the audience is in raptures. Songs from Is This Desire? (’98) and Uh Hu Her (’04) also get played…but the most moving moment is left for the encore, with the song that closes a truly amazing set: ‘Silence’, from White Chalk. So beautiful, and a perfect way to finish a memorable evening.

Land Observations: British Road Trip Music

Any list of “road trip” music will always – inevitably – include Steppenwolf’s ‘Born To Be Wild’, perhaps some Beach Boys, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty. The concept of “road trip” is etched in our minds as something very American, and suitably bouncy and upbeat American music is the de rigueur choice to soundtrack any road trip worth it’s mileage. That’s great, providing you’re driving a Cadillac on one of those endless US highways, under the hot sunshine.

But here in the UK, this kind of music doesn’t feel quite right if you’re driving under the grey skies and drizzle that seem to grace our shores even at the height of Summer.

No…if you’re looking for genuine British road music, you need something moodier than a Beach Boys singalong. Something like Land Observations, the new project from James Brooks (formerly of Mute Records motorik melancholics, Appliance).

The Roman Roads EP (released August 1st) is quite literally British road music – a taster for a full-length album of layered guitar compositions inspired by the major Roman roads that existed in Britain & Europe.

The tone is melancholic, but quite addictive and hypnotic – think Brian Eno’s ambient compositions, only with guitars. The EP consists of three tracks: Viae (In C Major), Octavian to Augustus, and Fosse Way (Fragment). If it sounds a bit pretentious to you, well, it thankfully isn’t.

The beauty of Landscape Observations is the simplicity of the music, with each guitar playing simple, repetitive parts that build up and, together, make up a very interesting whole. The music is very unassuming and serene. Stately, even.

For a project inspired by geographical locations, Land Observations does very successfuly what it says on the tin: those tracks really do take you somewhere… to those roads of old, and you can almost picture them as you listen to the tracks.

To hear them and for more info, visit: 

Land Observations: Roman Road EP (out now)

Rating: 4/5

The Horrors: ‘Skying’ Review

The Horrors 'Skying'When the Horrors first appeared on the scene, with their 2007 album ‘Strange House’, their future didn’t seem all that bright: lots of hype, faintly silly looks and not that many memorable tunes. They had a great sound and played some energetic gigs, but eventually were dropped by their label. 

When they returned with the ‘Sea Within a Sea’ single, and follow up album ‘Primary Colours’, they were an altogether different band. Toned down the silly goth look, and had a bigger, richer sound. What’s more – they had some cracking tunes, too. ‘Primary Colours’ was rightly regarded as one of 2009’s best albums.

One criticism often heard, was that ‘Primary Colours’ wasn’t all that original – it was just a copy of the My Bloody Valentine sound, just shoegaze revivalism. Was it such a big deal? Probably not…after all, they had great songs, it was a pretty good sound, and there was no new My Bloody Valentine album out there, anyway!

The Horrors new album, ‘Skying’, shows the band moving on to a different sound, but, as it happens, it’s still someone else’s! First single ‘Still Life’ is great, but sounds exactly like Simple Minds. Instead of early 90’s shoegaze, The Horrors decided to go back a few years and do 80’s flavoured music, with evident debt to bands such as Simple Minds and Psychedelic Furs.

Ok, so The Horrors are still not that original. But this time it may be more of a big deal. With ‘Primary Colours’ it wasn’t, because the sound was so good, the songs were so good. With ‘Skying’ this lack of originality matters, because the songs are not as memorable, and I felt slightly bored by the time i got to song number five. It feels like they paid more attention to the production, than to songwriting.

After the critical success of ‘Primary Colours’, there were great expectations for The Horrors, expectations that ‘Skying’ doesn’t fulfill. It’s a good album, but it’s not great. It’s not a classic. It’s a “7 out of 10” album, it’s a “three stars out of five” album. It’s just good, and, probably, just not good enough!

This album has the potential to alienate some of their fanbase while failing to make that many new converts. It probably won’t turn them into bigger stars. Which is a shame, considering that having a good guitar band in the charts would be great, for a change!

Unfortunately, it just feels like The Horrors will never truly be a “great” band. There doesn’t seem to be enough passion and personality in what they do. They’re too savvy, they’re almost like musicologists, making studious reproductions of the sounds and bands they love.

Let’s hope this will change. The Horrors are certainly a good band, and their future could still be bright. As for ‘Skying’: well, it’s certainly worth a listen. ‘Still Life’ is its best song, and one of this year’s most memorable singles.

Watch ‘Still Life’:

Enter The Void (DVD Release)

Enter The VoidThis film, directed by Gaspar Noé, was one of the best – and least seen – films to hit British screens in 2010. Now on DVD, it’s another chance for people to discover one of the most amazing, challenging and unique films of the past few years.

Based on the experiences described in the Tibetan Book Of The Dead, the film follows – for two and a half unrelenting hours – the spirit of an amateur drug dealer who has been shot dead.

It’s hard to describe what you’ll see: it’s a psychedelic journey throuhgh life, death and memories, where the camera – ie. the spirit of this person – penetrates into people, drifts in the air high above Tokyo, and zooms inside lightbulbs and through walls, until finally entering into a foetus and being born again.

And, credit to Noé, the film is not confusing at all: through all the manic camera work, visual effects and flashbacks, you manage to pierce together the unfortunate story of this guy, who became a drug dealer and got to be killed in a toilet,  and what happened to his family and friends.  Gaspar Noé just  tells a simple, straight-forward story in a complex, innovative way. Truly one-of-a-kind film-making!

Watch the trailer:

Tracey Emin: Love Is What You Want

Tracey Emin: Love Is What You WantThis retrospective of one of Britain’s foremost artists to emerge in the 90s, now showing at the Hayward Gallery in London, is proof of just how great, and unique, Tracey Emin really is.

Emin’s work has often been unfairly overshadowed by the controversies sourrounding the artist, early on in her career – namely, appearing drunk on TV and the (in)famous My Bed and Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995 artworks.

A good deal of people still thinks of Tracey Emin as just that – a controversy courting pseudo-artist. She’s a celeb first, she’s “that lady who did that bed thing and was drunk on TV”. But the truth is – she’s extraordinary.

Room 1 of the exhibition is filled with a selection of her blankets. Though sometimes visually cluttered,  they’re by no means less artistic for it. On the contrary, what superficially may seem as visual confusion, is, actually, the work of great skill, thought and patience. Each blanket is filled with an array of words, representing perhaps thoughts and feelings of the artist, or things she’s heard. The blankets are almost like visual representations of the inner self of the artist…so it’s no surprise they look so messy and confusing, after all, who isn’t? We’re all filled with turmoil…another interesting point, is that uniquely for a visual artwork, the focus is on words and the feelings and thoughts they represent, rather than on what we see in front of us.

And feelings and thoughts seems to be what interests Tracey Emin the most. Her work is totally autobiographical, and to see an exhibition like this, is to truly dwelve deep into her mind, which can be disturbing, or at least uncomfortable, sometimes.

Some of her work, the ones that use memorabilia, are more about Tracey than about art, and aesthetically they left me cold, even though they were about traumatical subjects such as abortion.

But most of the time, she mix aesthetics, emotion, art and her life experiences in a masterful way. Take the Neon artworks, which use a tacky medium commonly used to advertise in shops, red light destrics etc., but here used to highlight thoughts and feelings that most of us would bottle up inside and keep to ourselves. Tracey, unlike us, wants to expose herself, her feelings, and have them shinning brightly in a dark room.

The sheer scale of this exhibition is overwhelming, and it’s very hard to take it all in. There’s so much, there’s too much… too much rawness, too much bare feelings, too much of her own life. It’s not for everybody. You could visit any other exhibition and leave it none the wiser as to who the artist really was, as a person…but with Love Is What You Want, you feel as if you spent some time with Tracey Emin, you feel as if you got to know her…or at least more than you did before.

Room 5 shows some of Tracey’s more recent works. She’s less controversial, more focused, more serene. She seems to have definitely grown as an artist, and here you’ll see some of her most beautiful and creative works, such as White Rose (from 2007), her most elaborate neon to date.

Love Is What You Want is showing at Hayward Gallery, South Bank, London. Until 29th August. Entry £12 / £9 concessions. Don’t miss it!

Fernando Pessoa: The Greatest Poet You Never Read…

Fernando Pessoa

I am nothing.
I shall always be nothing.
I can only want to be nothing.
Apart from this, I have in me all the dreams in the world.

Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) was the greatest Portuguesepoet of modern times. He remains criminally underapreciated in English speaking countries, due to the relative unpopularity of translated literary works – nevermind of poetry!

But to discover Pessoa is to discover a completely new world, full of existential angst, dreams, despair and some truly fascinating thoughts.

He actually wrote poems under four different names, in completely different styles. According to Pessoa, each of these different authors were not really himself, but fully-fledged individuals with their own personality – he called them “heteronyms” rather than “pseudonyms”. For him, these were not “false” names, but simply “other” names, authors who wrote things Pessoa himself could never write. He was, it’s fair to say, a bit of a weird individual!

One of Fernando Pessoa’s friends was none other than Aleister Crowley, the infamous mystic and occcultist who wrote The Book Of Law. In 1930, when Crowley visited him in Portugal, Pessoa helped the magus to fake his own suicide, which included a suicide note left at a rock formation called the Mouth of Hell. Fernando Pessoa went as far as telling the press he’d seen Aleister Crowley’s ghost the day after his supposed suicide. Meanwhile, Crowley was in Spain enjoying the media scandal his prank generated.

This was an unlikely, flamboyant moment in Pessoa’s life, an author who was very shy and whowent unrecognised in hislifetime.

When the Lisbon poet died, in 1935, he left a trunk with over 27000 unpublishedworks, written by 86 different heteronyms.

Pessoa’s poetry took on many forms, but his bestworks are perhaps the ones soaked in melancholia andresignation. He understood life wasn’t all it was supposed to be, filled with impossible, crushing solitude.

His landmark poem was Tobacco Shop, which starts with the lines that opened this article. It continues:

“Windows of my room/ The room of one of the world’s millions nobody knows about/ (And if they knew about me, what would they know?)/ You open onto the mystery of a street continually crossed by people/ Real, impossibly real, certain, unknowingly certain/ With the mystery of things beneath the stones and beings/ With death making the walls damp and the hair of men white”

Tobacco Shop is an epic, sprawling poem, inspired   by the poet’s realisation  that dreams don’t come true, and he’ll never be all he wants to be be. That everything will eventually die: including the tobacco shop he’s visited, the street where it stands, and also his own poems and, finally, the language they were written. And one day, even the planet will die.

But is it all for nothing? To Pessoa, it’s the fleeting sensations, the small  pleasures, that will offer a relief: 

“And in that cigarette I Savour a freedom from all  thoughts/ I follow the smoke as if it were my own trail/ And enjoy, for a sensitive and adequate moment/ The liberation from all speculation”


Allen Ginsberg reading Fernando Pessoa’s Tobacco Shop:

Patti Smith: Queen of Rock’n’Roll

Patti Smith

Rock’n’roll is a man’s, man’s world, baby. It needn’t be. It shouldn’t be. For every talented female artist playing rock’n’roll, you got at least twenty rubbish male artists who are more successful.

To say women are worse at playing rock’n’roll, or are less interested in this genre, is ridiculous. What happens is that girls have less role models to inspire them, besides receiving less encouragement to do it.

And that’s even before we talk about Sexism, which creeps up in many forms: from the male expectations of what a female artist should be like – think “cute”, “acoustic”, “quirky”etc. – to the fact a female artist might be signed just because they are “fanciable”, therefore reinforcing the notion that being “sexy” is more important than being talented. Of course image is important in rock’n’roll, but bands such as The Like are ridiculous, and they exist – and get attention – only because they fulfil some sort of male fantasies. Their music is awful, and certainly doesn’t help the case for women in rock.

That’s why Patti Smith is so important, today as much as in 1975 when she released her debut album Horses. Because she truly rocked in her own terms. She was putting herself up there, onstage, as an artist, just like her male counterparts. It was never about “being a woman”, or trying to be sexy, or even worrying about people’s perceptions of her – it was about being free, independent, strong,  just like guys have always been. She wanted to be a rockstar like Keith Richards, or Bob Dylan. And she managed it. She was instantly iconic, thanks to that first album’s cover. She kicked ass, as you can testify on any YouTube footage from the ‘70s. The Patti Smith Group cover of The Who’s My Generation puts Oasis to shame, ending in a chaotic feedback noise that predated – and no doubt inspired – Sonic Youth.

A published poet before venturing into music, Patti Smith ranks as one of the best lyricists in rock, besides being one of the best and most passionate singers you’ll ever hear.

Now in her 60s, Smith stills performs with unparalleled energy. She is the consumate rock star, and should serve as an inspiration for anyone who loves rock’n’roll – whether you were born a girl, or a boy!

Gloria (from Horses) YouTube
Pissing In A River (from Radio Ethiopia) YouTube
Ask The Angels (from Radio Ethiopia) YouTube
Rock’n’Roll Nigger (from Easter) YouTube
Dancing Barefoot (from Wave) YouTube
The Jackson Song (from Dream of Life) YouTube
My Generation (Horses bonus track) YouTube

Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, is out now on paperback. Read it!