John Parish and P J Harvey - Dance Hall At Louse Point
IT'S A new PJ Harvey album, but it's not the new PJ Harvey album. This much we can glean from the utilisation of our favourite farmer's girl's full name and its ampersand linkage with some obscure bloke. Tradition deems we term such affairs 'collaborations', and by definition they are to be mistrusted.
Collaborations invariably result in work that, for all the apparent craft and experience involved, is half-arsed and mediocre and really not worth releasing (note the recent strange case of the 'Purple Parallelagram'). Collaborations produce material that would not normally pass muster; surely the participants would otherwise save this stuff for their 'proper' albums? Collaborations are redolent of so-called artists with too much time and money on their hands dicking around in a studio, enjoying themselves hugely, then releasing a record to which they wouldn't dream of putting their 'proper' names. Collaboration. Even the word itself reeks of connivance, subterfuge, sleeping with the enemy... all the better to con you with, my dears.
'Dance Hall At Louse Point' works, however, and partly because it is a collaboration between perceived unequals. As PJ Harvey's guitarist and co-producer, John Parish might be a star in his own eyes, and Polly obviously reckons he's the tops, but the mutual massage of supernova egos that characterises all the most notorious collaborative efforts was off the menu. What we've got might not be a PJ Harvey album in the strictest sense of the term - it's the first time the Peejster's worked her lyrics on to someone else's tunes - but 'Dance Hall At Louse Point' is far too keen and emotionally wrought to be dismissed as a collection of this premier talent's off-cuts. Advance word had it that this would be difficult. Here were impenetrable noise-scrapings from Parish, atop of which Polly would practise her vocal simulation of a wounded flamingo. Yet, despite Parish's evident affection for the dissonant blueprints of Sonic Youth, overall it's impressive just how sparse and low-key this root material is. Difficult? Smurfs-compatible ditties don't leap from every groove, but compared to the 'Rid Of Me' demos album this is easy listening. The absence of her trademark debasement of traditional pop forms is offset by the 12-track set's relative brevity and an alluring sense of pace. Spluttering metallic storms buttress bare-boned acoustic interludes, and vice versa. Occasionally they occupy the same song in perfect and surprising harmony. All concerned sit happily in the overall 'Dance Hall...' scheme.
Which seems to be the omnipresence of hysteria in all its multi-hued glory. The opening gambit of 'Girl' and 'Rope Bridge Crossing' set our feet on the requisite shaky ground. The former is simply a plucked guitar and Polly wailing wordlessly, yet the portent is unavoidable. Its sibling ushers forth siren clanking clouds of unease, thanks to Parish and his box of skeletal noises, and Harvey's force ten whispering: "I hope I don't fall off your bridge crossing over the funny mountain, the swollen river/You said, 'I'd be there'..."
If 'To Bring You My Love' was characterised by Harvey's adoption of a customised blues vocabulary to fit her exotic crawling queen snake persona, 'Dance Hall...' sees a partial return to natural codes of expression. Yet more and more her modes are wont to fly way off the screen. Is it hard to scream in falsetto? Polly makes it sound like something she does while flossing her teeth. "JEEEEEEESUSSS! SAAAVE MEEEE!" That's the chorus of 'Taut', an especially rum-sounding tale concerning Polly, "Billy" and the red car he bought. "It was the first thing he ever owned apart from me... Steamin' and sweatin' and stickin' against the window." She's prattling, convulsing, in places totally indecipherable. The message? When falling in love, children, don't forget your L-plates.
Harvey's arch humour adds a tart taste contrast to the expected obsessional sex shenanigans. Is it pushing the borders of interpretation to suggest that by titling a dark lament to a dying relationship, as in 'Civil War Correspondent', Polly is having a laugh at herself, puncturing the none-more-black-haired-girl of popular renown and positing herself as the Kate Adie of pop?
Maybe, but nothing about the Peej should surprise us now. It's a tribute to her bountiful reserves of drama that she can turn out a convincing revision of 'Is That All There Is?', the song about life's eternal capacity to disappoint made famous by Peggy Lee. The original was swaggering and blowsy, but Harvey and Parish give it double catatonic and take matters to their blank-faced extreme. Along with the aching lover spurned melancholia of 'That Was My Veil', it's the album's most supremely realised moment.
Marks are deducted only for such an allusive album title being represented by an instrumental. Otherwise, 'Dance Hall At Louse Point' is a tribute to the probity of both principals' anti-commercial instincts. No, it's not the new PJ Harvey album, but it's far more than a mere side bar to the main story. Welcome to the John 'n' Polly blues implosion.