Sunday, 6 September 2015

Oliver: PJ Harvey - Dress (28 December 1991)



Although John Peel gave airtime to thousands of bands/artists during his career, only a miniscule fraction of them enjoyed what I would call a full-career relationship with him.  What I mean by this is that Peel was with them when they started and they were still with him when he died.  Leaving aside musicians whose careers predated Peel's, I can only come up with a handful of names: Captain Beefheart, Mark E.Smith, David Gedge, Billy Bragg perhaps.  1991 though saw another name join that tiny list, the incomparable Polly Jean Harvey, who burst out of the rock 'n' roll hotbed that is Yeovil to claim a place in Peel's affections for the rest of his life.  Through several different stylistic shifts, he stayed true to her, though I suspect his preference was for the jumper and Doc Martens era Polly of Dry and Rid of Me, ahead of the False Eyelashes phase of To Bring You My Love, which was when I got into her.
Harvey's songs occupied some kind of long, desert road which when travelled would bring the listener into contact with murderesses, prostitutes, criminals, missing children, artists, lovers, religious maniacs, Adam and Eve, God and the Devil.  No matter what guise she took on, whether she was storm tossed angel or painted vampire, she created sound pictures, often out of sketchy and raw instrumentation that were (are) compelling, dramatic, occasionally scary, often seductive and always fascinating to listen to.  Couple such immense musical invention with her very singular look -dressed up or dressed down; with either a quizzical, teasing smile or a careworn, world-weary frown; that lean nose and face made her look quite unlike anyone else around, it all added up to one of the great British rock music talents of the last 25 years.

Dress was her calling card single, apparently played by Peel for the first time on 28 September 1991.
It owes the majority of its interest to this listener on its adherence to the whip crack drum beat and whip line tight guitar figure of its opening 30 seconds before rumbling into the warm bath of Polly's voice and the meaty guitar wash that propels the song forward.  That opening verse, in which she talks about wearing the titular garment to go dancing and catch the eye of the object of her desire lays down one of Harvey's key lyrical themes of her work: the desire to please men.  In the battle of the sexes, many of her heroines seemed in thrall to men who in songs like C'Mon Billy seem either to be dangerous or unworthy of her.  But amid the glorious cliche trope of dressing up to go dancing, bedrock of hundreds of songs dating back to popular music's earliest days, she suddenly throws in the lyrical curveball about the dress causing her to spin over like "a heavy hanging fruit tree" - an image which may well be the best lyric I've heard in these 1991 recordings outside of The Field Mice summing up my unrequited love.
Straight out of the chorus and the muscular riff is supplemented by a Bernard Hermannesque violin,
played by Polly herself.  It's touches such as these which suggested that she had a vision for her
music that transcended mere rock chickery: somehow American without being American and leading me to wonder what they put in the water in Yeovil and can more of us drink it?  The PJ Harvey template continues to be sketched out as the song progresses: the increasing frustration/desperation at not being able to get what she wants; the attentions of a beer soaked/nicotine stained suitor reminding  her of what he has already given her; finally the suggestion of violence and rape - "a fallen woman in a dancing costume".  This last point is hammered home in the closing movement as drum, guitar and bass  beat out the rhythm together, while the violin squeals away over the top like an ejaculatory burst at the end of a brutal, grinding encounter.

The standout track of the 1991 Peelenium, if she had never recorded another note, Harvey would have secured a place in music history with this marvellous song, but there was more to come, much more and Peel took it with him, all the way to the end.

Video courtesy of TheSampler2010.

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