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’:

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!