P J Harvey - Dry

"Women are reputed never to be disgusted. The sad fact is, they often are, but not with men, they are most often disgusted with themselves." Germain Greer, The Female Eunuch

EXCEPT POLLY PJ Harvey. She's the final nail in the coffin of the carefree, careless boy music critic. Behold, she is the one-woman saviour of indie sex! From out of a regenerated but already self-pollinating indie universe she came, sounding sooo different from Thousand Yard Stare and Midway Still that she might've been from another planet of sound altogether.

Last year's 'Dress' 45 was a wildcat among homing pigeons. Minimalist, hard-faced, ferocious, string heaven, it put the indie boys in a spontaneous lather and nailed mini-label Too Pure to the map. Now you will hear this a lot over the coming weeks - and you'll hear it again and again as this incredible band make their ascent to mainstream acceptance - but I'm putting it into speechmarks: "PJ Harvey has got balls". Do me a king-sized favour! Is it not time we stopped attaching bullocks to things we think are good? Is there not an element of actual lazy journalism in bestowing the gift of sperm production on a female artist who makes the grade? Patriarchal hogwash. You don't need to be Tim Booth, with his "God made us to her own design" guilt-trippery, to be offended by this daft, out-of-date sexist slur. Polly J Harvey Hs assets, strengths, attributes, talent. She is so great, she is a man. Cheers.

"Much to discover/I know you don't have the time", she sings - and when I say sings, I don't just mean enunciate words in tune to a provided melody, Polly dredges these sounds from the pit of her dissected soul and drags them out of her mouth with clenched fists. There is, indeed, much to discover on the low-key, 11-track debut by this Yeovil three-piece. And you should make time. From the first opening vocal wrench that is 'Oh My Lover', you know you're a million miles from the hard(on) sell of corporate nutter-chic(k) such as Tori Amos or even Sinead (God strike me down!). We have come to expect hard work and running up and down and ankle-breaking effects pedal punishment from our best On stars in the last couple of years - but this, as they say, is personal. Doing it for the kids, she may be, but swat is she doing , exactly?

PJ Harvey is the name of the band; this includes cool, grumbling bassist Stephen Vahghan and deft, unmannered drummer Robert Ellis. PJ Harvey is the name of the band's raison d'Ítre too - it is her bruise-like lips that are pushed in your face on 'Dry's' sleeve, it's her songwriting credit that takes these clever, repetitive, low-slung guitar poems into another dimension; it's her submerged, naked body that shocks from the album's back cover. In this case, the blokes are the accessories.

"I'm naked/So cover my body/Dress it fine" she sings on 'Happy And Bleeding', the album's cornerstone. The appearance of Polly's chest on this record's packaging may find itself, erm, misused in the grubby mitts of the lonelier Indie Sadboy, but let's hope they toss themselves off to death, while PJ goes on to greater things. It's problematic, for sure, this brazen, 'artistic' statement - but if you can't rise above it, you won't get far within.

When PJ says she's "bleeding for you", is it some martyrdom kick, or a lover's threat, or a metaphor for pain? One is drawn quickly to the conclusion that it's a 'woman's thing', but things get real messy when you burden a songwriter with your own gender-specific guesswork. Elsewhere, though, PJ urges the onlooker to "Look at these child-bearing hips/Look at these, my ruby red lips"(Sheela-Na-Gig) - she's washing that man right out of her hair ("Turn the corner, another one there") and on 'Dress' she's clearly addressing the pressures of fitting accepted female stereotypes - "It's hard to walk in a dress/It's not easy". You feel as if there's some absurdist gender panto going on in Ms Harvey's mind.

The frantic, Satanic-skiffle-athon 'Hair' contains the ironic Biblical pledge "With my hair I'll mop and dry". Why no lyric sheet, then? These wily, wonderful words are about a hundred times more enlightening and provocative than half-flicking through Cosmo and Elle could ever be. Agitate, educate and all that. Musically, 'Dry' follows a fairly constrictive pattern. Songs begin with some soul-safari vocal teaching over wretched, Country guitar and that growing bass and then explode into threatening life. Without fail. 'Plants and Rags' - the album's finest moment - begins as a sit-down Black Crowes ballad which gets duly weird when the haunted violins scrape and screee, then goes all loud and unnecessary right on cue.

Check 'Fountain's' lazy rimshot, the creepy crawly Bauhaus intro and eventual take on Siouxsie's 'Metal Postcard'. It kills. Try to get the rollercoaster Kate Bush concept piece 'The Ninth Wave' (from 'Hounds Of Love') out of your mind as 'Happy And Bleeding' takes you on a night-ride all of its own. The reference in 'Sheela-Na-Gig' to "dirty pillows" is a telling one, taken as it is from Carrie, wherein a pubescent telekinetic takes her bloody revenge on fanatical Christian mom, who uses the phrase to refer to breasts. That's Polly.

Forget the cerebral, apathetic anti-rock of Spiritualized and their glum chums - 'Dry' is your collector's item of 1992-so-far. Run for the hills, pale and timid T-shirt dummies, Polly Harvey is your first wet nightmare.

9/10

Andrew Collins