Tagged: PJ Harvey

Cash Savage and the Last Drinks: The Zoo, 19 May 2017

When future Bruce Springsteen manager Jon Landau wrote his instantly infamous review of the man he saw as “rock & roll future” in 1974, the more personal, vulnerable elements of his enthusiasm were drowned out by his own hyperbole.

Landau caught The Boss at a time when he needed to be reminded of why he fell in love with music in the first place, and he quoted a line from the Lovin’ Spoonful’s Do You Believe In Magic: “I’ll tell you about the magic that will free your soul / But it’s like trying to tell a stranger about rock & roll.” He concluded that as long as the magic still existed, his mission was to tell a stranger about it.

No one would be so foolish as to predict rock & roll’s future more than 40 years later. But I found myself reminded of Landau’s review, on a couple of levels, while watching Cash Savage and the Last Drinks tear through their set last Friday to maybe a hundred or so disciples. Savage – barefoot, black jeans, black T-shirt, greasy black hair, black Telecaster, cowboy belt – may be the best rock star we’ve got right now.

The sparse crowd is initially reserved, hanging back several metres from the stage. Savage opens the set ambitiously, with the agonised slow dance of One Of Us. Within 45 seconds, the stage has been rushed. “We are alone / We are all alone,” she croons, and instantly, we’re not. She sings in the most gender-indeterminate voice the other side of Anohni: where Anohni is most often compared to Nina Simone, Savage’s deep growl and wild shriek is like a reincarnation of Jeffrey Lee Pierce, of the Gun Club.

This comparison is not new. Any similarities, however, are supposedly accidental. In one of those strange examples of convergent musical evolution, Savage claims not to have even heard the pioneering early 1980s punk-country-blues band until she became sick of being asked about their influence, and investigated them for herself. (“Then it was like, where has this band been all my life?” she tells me later with a grin.)

The Last Drinks include some obvious traditional elements – Kat Mear’s fiddle, Brett Marshall occasionally on banjo – and on beautiful ballads like My Friend, they’d tear up any folk/blues festival stage in the world. But theirs is no Antipodean alt-country try-on. By the second song, the murderous thump-and-grind of Let Go, Savage has dropped her guitar. She’s poised on the edge of the stage, death-staring the crowd, preachin’ the blues like Pierce and Robert Johnson before her.

This is the kind of classic pose only a true believer can pull off. Ann Powers once wrote of the young PJ Harvey (circa To Bring You My Love) that she was “bent on touching rock’s magical core”. Savage does this repeatedly, particularly as her set nears its climax with the closing one-two punch of Run With the Dogs and The Hypnotiser – careening songs that tear through the room and take everybody with them.

Savage’s presence and songwriting is matched by a wonderfully sympathetic band. Joe White, one of three guitarists on stage, is a standout with counter-melodic leads alternating with sheets of noise. Mear is possibly even better: she sometimes leads, but more often hers is the band’s locomotive breath; another rhythmic force propelling the songs over the tracks laid down by Chris Lichti’s bass and Rene Mancuso’s drums. And they can all sing, often in huge chain-gang choruses.

Just to be clear about this, no, Cash Savage isn’t rock & roll’s future. Who knows if there even is one? But whether she’s aware of it or not, she carries its spirit and history within her, and as long as there are performers with her conviction and commitment around, it lives on in the present. And after a month spent running from my own dogs, which had been barking and snapping at my heels, she reminded me of why I fell in love with it in the first place, too.

First published in The Guardian, 22 May 2017

Le provocateur

Immediately after cutting their striptease classic Je t’aime … Moi Non Plus in 1969, French songwriter Serge Gainsbourg and his English paramour, Jane Birkin, adjourned to the restaurant of their Parisian hotel. Gainsbourg, full of mischief, convinced the staff to play the record. As the song built, literally, to its climax – with the sound of Birkin in the throes of apparent orgasm – the room went still.

“Everybody’s knives and forks were in the air, suspended,” Birkin later told Gainsbourg’s biographer, Sylvie Simmons. “Gainsbourg said, ‘I think we’ve got a hit.’” And for decades, Je t’aime was the erotic novelty hit for which Gainsbourg was best known – at least outside of France, until a heart attack ended his life aged 62, in 1991.

Four years later, Melbourne musician Mick Harvey – then a key member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – released Intoxicated Man, a collection of Gainsbourg covers, translated into English. In the liner notes, he explained “what might otherwise be an unnecessarily enigmatic project,” professing his bewilderment that Gainsbourg’s work was virtually unknown outside of French-speaking countries.

These days, it’s a different story. Gainsbourg’s legacy is everywhere: from season two of Mad Men (a jingle for a coffee company is a reworking of his racy 1964 single Couleur Café) through the work of everyone from French band Air to Beck to Arcade Fire. Bonnie And Clyde has been covered by a multitude of artists, including Luna, Tame Impala and Belinda Carlisle, as well as being sampled by Kylie Minogue.

And Harvey’s translations of the songs, which meticulously preserved the rhymes, innuendos, puns and endless double-entendres of the originals, are a major reason why. He claims as “a feather” that Birkin, with whom Gainsbourg also recorded the classic 1971 album Histoire de Melody Nelson, credits Harvey for her own continued ability to tour Australia and the United States.

Then he backtracks, as if wary of over-inflating himself. “Oh … That’s nice,” he says with a self-deprecating chuckle, when told that’s quite a feather. “It’s not necessarily the aim of what I’m doing, but it’s a pleasant side-effect.”

Harvey, who remained with the Bad Seeds until 2010, remains the perennial side-man, burnishing the songs of others seemingly in preference to his own original body of work. (Our conversation is punctuated by the roar of passing trucks outside a studio in Bristol, where he is rehearsing with another long-time associate, PJ Harvey, ahead of a forthcoming tour.)

Harvey followed the cult success of Intoxicated Man with a second volume of Gainsbourg songs in 1997, Pink Elephants. In 2014, the albums were paired together and reissued, with Harvey playing shows to support the release in Australia and Europe. Talk turned to expanding the project; now there’s a third album in the series, Delirium Tremens – with a fourth to follow later this year.

If that seems a bridge too far, consider this: Gainsbourg left behind well over 500 songs, many of them written for other artists including Brigitte Bardot – with whom he first recorded Je t’aime – Françoise Hardy, Juliette Gréco and France Gall, who sang his winning Eurovision entry of 1965, Poupeé de Cire, Poupeé de Son, a version of which will be on Volume 4.

If four album’s worth of covers devoted to a single artist seems obsessive, Harvey’s reasons for returning to Gainsbourg’s catalogue is disarmingly simple. “The first time around I saw it as a large undertaking, a daunting task, and took it all very seriously,” he says. “And at some point JP Shilo [formerly of Hungry Ghosts, now in Harvey’s band] suggested ‘Well, why don’t we do some more? Are there any other songs?’

“So I just started looking at the prospect of doing another album, and when I came back to the material I found that it was just really entertaining and great fun to engage with.”

Besides, he says, the first two albums were just the tip of the iceberg. “I used to ask in interviews quite often, when people would declare themselves to be big Gainsbourg fans, ‘Well, how many songs do you know?’ – and there’d usually be about three or four,” he says. “A lot of the songs on Delirium Tremens are some of his better-known songs in France – Couleur Café, even The Man With The Cabbage Head is from one of the now revered concept albums.”

Translating the material was no less of a challenge. “The toughest songs to translate [were] the two songs from the concept albums, The Man With The Cabbage Head and Cargo Cult … SS C’est Bon was the other one, with all the alliteration, that was pretty hard to solve, but I think we got there. It was a very funny song to do – kind of ridiculous, but with Serge, that’s part of the deal, the ridiculous.”

He also hasn’t shied away from the most provocative aspects of Gainsbourg’s oeuvre. For Pink Elephants, he translated Aux Enfants de la Chance, Gainsbourg’s parody of an anti-drug song, recorded for his final album in 1987 when he was at his most dissolute: “To all the lucky kids, who’ve never been on trips, shooting up shit / In substance I’d say this / Don’t try dragon-chasing / Don’t even think of freebasing.”

Gainsbourg’s willingness to shock and scandalise, Harvey says, was crucial to his art. “To shy away from the more controversial material would be to do the balance of his work an injustice, because that was a really big part of what he was doing. It’s not who I am, and it’s not even really a major aspect of what he does that I like, but I have to acknowledge that it’s there.”

Asked about the notorious Lemon Incest – which Gainsbourg recorded with his then-12-year-old daughter to Birkin, Charlotte, in 1984 – Harvey keeps a studied intellectual distance. “I don’t feel responsible for the content of those lyrics, so it’s really like a depersonalised event for me in some ways,” he says. (Charlotte Gainsbourg has publicly defended both the song and her father.)

“That song is a number of things. I think it’s a beautiful song, in a way. Even though it’s got a dodgy undertone, it’s actually very gently rendered. It’s a declaration of love, as well as being put in a manner to deliberately upset people.” He slips into an accent akin to John Cleese’s French taunter. “‘Oh, if I just put this line here and that line there, it will outrage everyone – and why not!’”

“I can take an arms-length position, really, because it’s someone else’s song. And anyway, I don’t think there’s anything true in that stuff … I think Gainsbourg, at his core, was a very gentle and loving person; I don’t think all the wild-man stuff was really who he was, until much later on, when he sort of descended into drunken idiocy. Before that he was a very considered and charming guy.

“I think if you just look at the list of artistically empowered, strong-minded women that he worked with, who just adored him and wouldn’t say a bad word against him, I don’t think you’re dealing with a boorish misogynist; it just doesn’t add up. The evidence doesn’t back up the idea, I’m afraid.”

First published in Spectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 17 June 2016

Taylor Swift is single. Bring on the breakup songs

Taylor Swift is single again, and I for one am glad. Not for her heartbreak (as a fellow human, naturally, I’m sorry for her pain), and certainly not because she’s “back on the market” since, needless to say, I’m not in it. No, I’m glad selfishly, because if it produces a song half as good as I Knew You Were Trouble, the world will be a better place, for she will ease the pain of anyone who’s ever been through the same.

Which, let’s face it, is pretty much all of us. Romantic heartbreak is the lingua franca of the pop song. In the opening soliloquy of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, Rob (played in Stephen Frears’ film by John Cusack) poses a universal question, as the 13th Floor Elevators’ garage classic You’re Gonna Miss Me blasts through his headphones:

“What came first – the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence is going to take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”

And then Laura – who is about to shoot to number one with a bullet on Rob’s desert island, all-time top five most memorable breakups, in chronological order – walks into the room and pulls the plug, literally, on the music and, metaphorically, on their relationship.

The tabloids are already coming after Swift. Grazia listed 13 times ex-boyfriends have apparently inspired her music, saying she had “infamously” mined her personal life for lyrical inspiration. Like every other songwriter in history. Actually, maybe we should be glad for Swift’s critics, because she’s already kissed them off in fine style with Shake It Off. Can we have another one of those, too?

Did anyone complain when Otis Redding practically tore out his (and everyone else’s) heart singing I’ve Been Loving You Too Long? How about the Clash’s Mick Jones, who wrote Train In Vain after his breakup with the Slits’ Viv Albertine, while the band was recording London Calling? Do we even need to talk about Joy Division’s all but sanctified Love Will Tear Us Apart?

No one complained when Bob Dylan got an entire album out of the collapse of his marriage to his first wife, Sara Lownds. That album was Blood On The Tracks. It has been the measuring stick for every breakup album by a serious male singer-songwriter since, from Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call (which features at least two paeans to PJ Harvey) to Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker to Beck’s Sea Change.

Adams, of course, later covered Swift’s 1989 in its entirety. Stripping Swift’s songs back to basics, focusing attention on the brilliance of their construction, threw up an interesting set of questions around pop, authenticity and Swift’s superstar status – especially around what a female pop singer has to do in order to be taken seriously by a mostly male critical establishment.

Or, in this case, not do. For the more cloth-eared members of that establishment, unable to look past Swift’s glossy image or admit that rock music is often equally as factory-assembled, it took Adams’ emo take to legitimise Swift’s talent. (Adams, by the way, isn’t the first male artist to try his hand at this sort of thing: see Richard Thompson’s version of Britney Spears’s Oops! I Did It Again.

Can anyone recall an album by a female artist being compared to Blood On The Tracks? I can’t. Certainly not in pop music. Not even, in the rock arena, PJ Harvey, whose Is This Desire? was dedicated, in turn, back to Nick Cave. Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is frequently described, in a very feminised way, as a soap opera, due to the somewhat complicated nature of the relationships within the mixed-gender group.

Pop music is dominated by women, from Madonna to Rihanna to Sia to Beyoncé, and along with boy bands and almost anyone playing dance music, their music is routinely dismissed as lightweight. But if grown men can confess to being moved to tears when Springsteen and Dylan turn their attention to matters of the heart, then why not, say, Swift’s Wildest Dreams?

I hope Swift finds true love soon. Really, I do. But in the meantime, I hope she goes on too many dates and can’t make ’em stay. Let her go on making the bad guys good for a weekend a while longer. Actually, now I think of it, I hope she gets back together with Calvin Harris, just so she can break up with him again and write another version of We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.

Just like her male peers, like all of us, Swift gets down and out about the liars and dirty cheats of the world. The only difference is she’s doing it to a sick beat. As for the haters, well, we all know what they say about them.

First published in The Guardian, 8 June 2016

The day I got owned by Grant McLennan

It was the 10th anniversary of Grant McLennan’s passing yesterday. It wasn’t until late afternoon that I actually remembered; there’d been some stuff going down in my own world that I’d been absorbed within. But then I also remembered that days before, I’d put a lay-by on a rare copy of G Is For Go-Betweens, the long since out-of-print box set released a couple of years ago by Domino, that had turned up in Rocking Horse Records.

The box was expensive at the time (which put me off) and of course it was even more so now, but I’d regretted missing out after it quickly disappeared. So I traded some old stuff to make the initial deposit and – being inclined towards the sentimental and the symbolic – I decided to head into town and pick it up, rather than waiting a few more days to actually get paid. Sometimes you just have to do these things.

So I took it home and spent the night in a funk, listening to the early singles and the first three albums, Send Me A Lullaby (ripe for rediscovery, though the band was still gelling), Before Hollywood (on which they perfected the Striped Sunlight Sound to which they’d aspired) and Spring Hill Fair (sort of a step sideways, before their next great leap forward, to the masterful Liberty Belle And The Black Diamond Express).

By the end of the marathon I’d stopped gazing at my own navel for long enough to reflect on Grant and the impact he’d had on me. I never got to know him very well; ours was a semi-professional acquaintance more than a friendship, though we’d known each other 10 years. Grant was always respectful of critics, though sometimes irascible if they didn’t give his albums enough stars. Robert Forster, of course, became a critic himself.

Anyway, I remembered the day I bumped into him in Egg Records, in West End. We were chatting and he pulled out a CD of Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, by PJ Harvey, and told me how much he loved it. I demurred slightly. I had been a huge fan of her visceral early records, but was less enamoured, shall we say, of the post-therapy, painfully self-aware Polly writing songs like Good Fortune.

I remember saying something along the lines of, I didn’t think her songwriting was at quite the same level as it had been. Grant raised an eyebrow. “Really?” he said. Here I was, talking to one of the finest songwriters on the planet, archly dismissing the work of another of the world’s best, and I’d never written a damn song in my life.

At that instant, I could see him looking right through me. But his eyes were twinkling; he didn’t call me out because he didn’t need to – he just shuffled and grinned that lopsided grin of his. “Really?” It was terribly humbling, and I found myself laughing at the absurdity of my position. Grant was a very funny man. Those who can, do; those who can’t talk shit, and I was talking complete shit.

We ended up having lunch, and he told me that a copy of Pig City had gone around the Go-Betweens’ van on the band’s last tour. Of course they’d all had their various takes on it, but they’d all enjoyed it, and that was humbling, too. I think I can say Grant himself wasn’t always known for his humility (which is to say he knew how fucking good he was), but he sure taught me a lot about it that day.

He was gone three weeks later. I miss him like we all do, but it’s a reminder that you never know when you’re going to lose people, and always be grateful for what they give you.

PJ Harvey’s bubble bursts

It’s tough to be critical of Polly Jean (PJ) Harvey. As an artist, her place in history is secure: hailed as the world’s best songwriter by Rolling Stone upon the release of her first album, Dry, in 1992, Harvey is the sole dual winner of the Mercury Music Prize (first for Stories Of The City, Stories Of The Sea, released in 2000, then for Let England Shake, released in 2011). And she’s not just a critic’s darling – she bears the royal seal of approval, having been awarded an MBE for her services to music in 2013.

So a new release by PJ Harvey is a certifiable event. And the usually reserved singer/songwriter is making sure that the follow-up to Let England Shake will be noticed: she’s recording it behind one-way glass at Somerset House in London, turning the studio into an “mutating, multi-dimensional sound sculpture”.

In effect, PJ Harvey is turning herself into an exhibit, and hopes the audience “will be able to experience the flow and energy of the recording process”. London-based art commissioning organisation Artangel has said in a statement: “The working process of a project has always been as important to us as its public presentation, and here both can be fully explored and revealed at the same time.”

But while Harvey is likely to be lauded for her bravery and originality, in England at least, Australian fans will hear an echo bouncing off the glass walls of the prosaically named “Recording In Process” studio. For this has been well and truly, and very publicly, done before: Brisbane mavericks Regurgitator pioneered the concept by recording their fifth album Mish Mash for their Band In A Bubble project in 2004. The entire spectacle was filmed and broadcast by Channel V.

There’s a certain irony in this situation, for as their name suggests, Regurgitator are self-styled cultural cannibals: their biggest hit ! (The Song Formerly Known As) was named for its self-conscious approximation of Prince’s classic ’80s period. The line between cannibalism, plagiarism and homage is treacherous, but in the case of choosing to record your album in a glass studio, the difference seems fairly clear-cut. Regurgitator was never approached, and the concept has not been optioned, by either Artangel or PJ Harvey’s management.

Was Harvey aware of Regurgitator’s earlier project? Was her management? Was Artangel? Was Melbourne-based Mick Harvey, formerly of the Bad Seeds and a long-time member of PJ Harvey’s band? If they were, were they hoping her Teflon-coated reputation would protect them, or were they banking on Regurgitator’s relative lack of overseas recognition? (Both Artangel and representatives for PJ Harvey were contacted for comment; neither had responded by deadline.)

The man behind the original bubble idea is Regurgitator’s manager, Paul Curtis, who devised the concept himself in 1999 and has been trying – unsuccessfully to date – to involve Australian art galleries in further “recording in process” productions. And in fairness, as he points out, there are some significant differences in approach between the two projects. Unlike Regurgitator, Harvey and her band aren’t living in their “bubble”, aren’t on camera, and are performing behind one-way glass: they can’t see or interact with their audience.

Also, visitors to Somerset House have limited viewing “windows” in which to watch the artist at work: the sold-out 45-minute public sessions are from 3pm and 6pm from Tuesday to Friday, and 1pm to 3pm on Saturdays. “The only interaction is the actual awareness that at various points there is an audience present,” Curtis says, “and thus a potentially more contrived engagement around those moments of ‘performance’, versus continual exposure.”

Certainly, for anyone familiar with the long breaks, technical delays and numbing repetition that characterise the average recording session, a paying audience will be hoping to catch the rare moments where the magic really happens. Harvey, too, will be aware of this. In this sense, Regurgitator’s project was actually a far more radical (and certainly braver) experiment. However, the resulting album Mish Mash was poorly received, possibly a backlash against what was widely viewed as a gimmicky production: ironically, the band were seen as over-exposed.

Curtis is now hoping that Harvey’s album may lead to a renewed interest in building on his original vision, both in Australia and overseas. “We had proposed a re-envisioned art gallery version of the concept under the title Composition in Glass,” he explains. “This idea was much more extreme in approach than Band In A Bubble or Recording In Progress and more about an interactive installation, pushing both the art world and music industry into dada-ist experimental levels.”

So far, an underwhelming response from galleries, combined with scheduling difficulties with the band – singer/guitarist Quan Yeomans lives in Hong Kong and has just become a father; bassist/singer Ben Ely has returned to Brisbane, while drummer Pete Kostic lives in Sydney – have prevented a fulfilment of Curtis’ vision.

“All I can say is the music industry is a shallow bed more often remade with cheap imitation rather than fresh sheets,” he says. “What we did 10 years ago came from a place of experimentation, play and outsider attitudes. I know there were detractors at the time, but maybe now someone who is perceived as a ‘credible artist’ puts it in a different perspective.”

First published in The Guardian, 8 January 2015

PJ-gate: citizen journalism at the ABC

In his book Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life And Beyond, academic Axel Bruns talks about the concept of folksonomics, wherein traditional hierarchies of knowledge have been flattened by the empowerment of the online community. The rise of social media (including blogs such as this one) and the drive towards interactive news environments, in particular, has meant that journalists have lost their once-coveted status as both the gatekeepers and disseminators of information.

This is not entirely a bad thing, but the drowning out of expertise in favour of the hum of audience chatter has its limitations. As the ABC has just discovered, after sending a citizen journalist (actually, a staff audio engineer) to write a live review of one of the most revered songwriters of her generation. PJ Harvey is not a woman to be trifled with, and nor are her fans. In the interests of full disclosure, I’m happy to add that I am one.

Ian Church’s piece for the website of Perth’s local ABC radio 720 is now flagged (after a couple of hasty edits), as an “audience review”. He paid his own way to get in, so at least we as ABC consumers didn’t pay to be edified by the following bon mots:

“I, like many of other males have been introduced to PJ Harvey by my partner. And after just two minutes of being at the concert hall, a guy and his wife pick up on our West Country English dulcet tones.

“We talk about her music, and how although we as men are not massive fans, we both have great respect for her and her song writing.

“After seeing PJ Harvey perform at festivals, I know this lass can hold her own with the boys. For research you only have to look at songs from the Desert sessions where she performs with the likes Mark Lanegan, and Josh Homme.”

And that’s just for starters – literally. It’s the introduction.

The ABC didn’t allow comments on the piece, but PJ Harvey’s Facebook page was apparently flooded with complaints and the ABC had a bucketful also. Well, I sent one, anyway. To Aunty’s credit, she has since amended the egregiously sexist bits, without taking the time to render the rest literate.

In fact, this is not Ian Church’s only review. In many ways, his piece on Gary Numan’s Perth show in May last year (which has not yet, by the way, been deemed an “audience review”) reaches heights/plumbs depths unexplored in the Harvey travesty, veering into so-bad-it’s-good territory with all the demented certainty of a bung shopping trolley:

“I had never been to a concert before at the Astor Cinema and to be honest I was unsure on what to expect.”

Never fear, Numanoids:

“I enjoyed this concert amazingly. The only thing that let it down was the cheap merchandise, but if you were wearing that to look cool then you really need to take a look at yourself.

“I know me and my 30-something mates all had a whale of a time. Gary Numan has been keeping it real, and for that I thank him.”

No, Ian. Thank you.

My beef is not really with Ian or his opinions. It’s with whoever thought it was a good idea to commission him. A good editor would have at least, you know, edited his thoughts into something that vaguely approached readability. A better editor would not have published them in the first place. PJ Harvey certainly deserves more (and I don’t mean favourable treatment; she doesn’t want for that); more importantly, the audience demands it. We are not idiots. Neither is Ian, I’m sure – but please, stick to your day job.

Even more than journalists, editors are gatekeepers. They are the bullshit detectors and the quality controllers. If you want to imagine a world without them, reading Ian Church’s reviews will give you a pretty good idea of what it looks like. I could accept such amateurism in the annals of the street press. But the ABC? Hopefully, the savaging they’ve received will discourage a repeat.

I’m all for a plurality of voices. The more the merrier. But if editors want to commission citizen journalists, let’s make them good ones. Let it be an opportunity to expose vibrant, articulate, passionate new voices. If they’re worth listening to, they’ll rise above the chatter.

Really, there’s already enough noise in the world.