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Monday, Feb 23, 2009

During an odd afternoon as a part time DJ at a community college radio station which I finally heard what a strained, angry woman sounds like.  The radio station received its measly weekly mailings from our distributor and near the bottom of the small box was a copy of P.J. Harvey’s first album Dry. The disengaging cover grabbed my attention first: the smear of red lipstick across the bottom of a nose to the top of the chin. A vertical line, cutting through P.J.’s sneer. Sure, I had heard Pattie Smith and was a closet Pretender fan. I dug Sinead and thought other women rock stars were cool, but this was different. The inset informed us that this was the brightest sound of rock (NOTE: not women’s rock) coming from Britain in years. The insert also commanded us to play the new single “Sheela Na Gig” and check out her video on MTV’s “120 Minutes” in the coming weeks.


In pure community college fashion, I took the ad’s advice and cued “Sheela Na Gig”; without a preview; just a quick “What the hell?!” The quick light of the initial guitar riff and this rhythmic, hardened guitar and then:


I’ve been trying to show you over and over
    Look at these my child-bearing hips
    Look at these my ruby red ruby lips
    Look at these my work strong arms and
    You’ve got to see my bottle full of charm
    I lay it all at your feet
    You turn around and say back to me
    He said
    Sheela-na-gig, sheela-na-gig


After playing the song, quickly pawning the CD into my school bag and “borrowing” it for the night, I found a woman who screamed from a level of womanhood that only a few ever tried, but were, at best, given the “exhibitionist” label and quickly dismissed. P.J. Harvey demanded our utmost respect; not because she’s a woman, but because she sang and played on Dry at a level that very few at the beginning of the ‘90s even challenged. Only 22 at the release of the album, PJ challenged her listener at every turn of the record. The simplicity of PJ’s guitar riffs, basic rhythmic section, and mixed with Harvey’s voice created an album that I consider possibly the best album of the early 1990s.



Dry is an album that is unapologetic to the pains of prior generations of women. Dry is an up front accusation of men and women who propagate and survive because of a Patriarchy that Harvey deals with richly developed bombastic accusations that challenge not only men, but the women who gain from playing in the system. By the time the final track “Water” buzzes through the speakers, we’ve been indoctrinated into a world that very few artists have ever been successful at describing and criticizing. P.J. Harvey is a magnificent songwriter that borrows from the greats, but all the while creating a sound that has influenced all sorts of albums. Let’s face it Radiohead fans, Thom Yorke needed P.J. to be great and when you hear the desperation of Dry I believe you hear the sighs and moans and screams that are constant reminders that so much is borrowed from this woman’s musical career. Ironically, P.J. is the loudest and sharpest woman voice of her generation, but she never had to bust out a chorus of “Closer to Fine” on “Lilith Fair” for her credibility to ring as hard and determined as any in rock.


Dry begins with a sinister blend of bass riff and P.J.’s pleading line “O My Lover/Don’t you know it’s alright/You can love her/You can love me at the same time?” At once Harvey takes full command of the relationship she will have with her listener and her lover. A pardon for listening or loving anything beforehand because, quite frankly, it’s okay; all the while the collected session musicians plays a devilish and desperate number in the background. “Oh My Lover” introduces the listener to a world hell bent to avoid the apology and desperate for you to understand that P.J. Harvey is in complete control. By the time track 2 “O Stella” finishes, a tightly packaged band is in full form and P.J. Harvey has mastered a vocal range that demonstrates the raw power she will use as a foundation for her early career.


Highlights on Dry are endless and, quite frankly, there isn’t a weak track on the entire album. However, what P.J. will be known for in her career is her flexibility as a songwriter. P.J. demonstrates this in four numbers track 5 “Happy & Bleeding”, Plants & Rags”, “Fountain”, and the final track “Water”. The starkness of Harvey’s efforts are on display in these four tracks. However, a nod must be made to the track “Plants & Rags”; a mashing of Harvey’s acoustic guitar with the layered textures of string patterns that sound like a precursor to Billy Corgin’s future work with The Smashing Pumpkins; “Plants & Rags” shows a thoughtful and playful songwriter. If P.J. stuck to the hard edges of “Oh My Lover” and “Sheela Na Gig” there is little doubt that she would have succumbed to the death of many woman songwriters who play loud bombastic rock. Truth is, when P.J. appeared for the first time she was immediately paired with that songstress Liz Phair, but it’s the flexibility of Harvey’s work that separates her from the pack of ordinary rockers.


The last two tracks on Dry “Fountain” and “Water” play off the Feminist messages Harvey delivers with expertise, but it’s with playfulness that she calls upon the biblical allusions of “Hand in hand/He’s my big man/ Stays with me/ Some forty days/ No words/ Then goes away/ I cry again.” However, P.J.’s final shot is across the bow of manhood. She challenges the adventurous, hubris men of Christ and Icarus with the notion that these characters toy with a woman’s emotional stability, in this case Mary, with pleads that will eventually drawn her in water. When P.J. challenges her man to “Prove it to me”, she calls out from that same voice that led her listener off the album’s cliff; I can hear this as P.J.’s final strike. “Water” finishes with her request of Mary to hold on tight because P.J. isn’t a sucker; she’s walking on water.


Now the water to my ankles
    Now the water to my knees
    Think of him all waxy wings
    Melted down into the sea
    Mary Mary what your man said
    Washing it all over my head
    Mary Mary hold on tightly
    Over water
    Under the sea
    Water
    Water
    I’m walking
    Walking on
    Water


P.J. Harvey calls upon her past to challenge their position in history and not to be satisfied with the bit parts in the script. Dry functions on these ironic placements. From the ironic conception of the cover and the misplaced lipstick to the lyrical and musical output within, the album excels on a level few have reached. It is with this irony that P.J. Harvey’s Dry is successful and will live on as a great masterpiece in rock and roll history. The great thing is that this was the beginning of a career leading Harvey to great musical experiments. What was promised on an album like Dry has been furthered throughout P.J. Harvey’s career.


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Friday, Feb 20, 2009
How a post-punk synth band became a poor man's U2.

I first heard Simple Minds the way most people probably did; in The Breakfast Club. John Hughes’ magnum opus of teen angst begins and ends with “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” a song written for the film by Keith Forsey and Steve Schiff. They offered the song to a number of artists, including Billy Idol and Bryan Ferry, but were turned down by everyone until Simple Minds, under pressure from their label, agreed to record it. The song has been both a blessing and a curse to the band. It was their first and only US number one hit and stayed on the UK charts for an incredible two years. The band, however, obviously had mixed feelings about the success of a song they did not write. This became evident when they decided not to include the track on their next album Once Upon A Time, much to the chagrin of their record label. The album was (and remains) their biggest selling record, but Simple Minds surely couldn’t help thinking that most people who bought it had probably never heard of them before The Breakfast Club. These people missed out on the band at the height of their powers. When they were a glorious mess of ideas and influences. When their sound was changing and developing so fast that they themselves could barely keep up. Unfortunately, the greatness of these early years made the disappointment of their later albums that much harder to take. 


Few bands have made such an artistic leap in such a short amount of time. Within one year, Simple Minds released their debut album Life in a Day wearing their influences (Roxy Music, Bowie, Magazine) a little too plainly on their sleeve, to writing, recording, and releasing Reel to Real Cacophony, a record that could not have been the work of anyone else. Angular guitars fight with stabbing synths, creating a kaleidoscope of post-punk pop. Amongst other landmark releases of 1979 from Joy Division (Unknown Pleasures), PiL (Metal Box) and Gang of Four (Entertainment!), it’s easy to forget Reel to Real Cacophony but it’s important not to. It’s an album on par with anything released that year.


Taking their interest in electronic music further, Simple Minds changed gears again with the aptly-named Empires and Dance, released in 1980. Songs like “I Travel” and “Thirty Frames a Second” are cold slices of paranoid disco, dance music for Arctic oil rigs. It’s with this album that singer Jim Kerr began touching upon political issues in his lyrics. At this point they’re effective in their vague evocativeness, and still buried amongst other more abstract imagery, but it was the beginning of a trend that would become detrimental and just plain annoying by the time the ‘90s rolled around.


The band’s label, Artisa, were unimpressed with Empires and Dance and pressed only a minimal amount of copies, making the record difficult for fans to find. Simple Minds jumped ship and signed with Virgin, promptly releasing two albums simultaneously. Sons & Fascination and Sister Feelings Call sees the icy landscapes of their previous album begin to melt and reveal hints of the epic scope their music would soon take.



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Thursday, Feb 19, 2009

2009 is shaping up to be busier than 2008 for Cyndi Lauper. Following her Grammy nomination for the acclaimed Bring Ya to the Brink (2008) album, the tireless LGBT activist has a book, movie, and concert tour in the works, in addition to establishing a foundation named after her chart-topping hit from 1986, “True Colors”. Amidst all her projects, she found a moment to answer PopMatters’ 20 Questions.


1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
It’s not a new movie – I think it came out in 1999 – but I just loved it. It was called Joe The King.


2. The fictional character most like you?
Huck Finn.


3. The greatest album, ever?
I can’t pick just one.


4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Trek.


5. Your ideal brain food?
Edamame.


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Wednesday, Feb 18, 2009

It’s about time that Elvis Costello’s wife, pianist and singer Diana Krall, appeared on Spectacle (airing Wednesdays at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel)—after all, the cameras cut to her in the audience on most episodes, just another face in the crowd, a face that just so happens to be wed to the series’ host. So for this penultimate episode of the series, the spotlight’s hers. She appears alongside bassist Christian McBride and drummer Karriem Riggins, who back her up on a few terrific performances, including Nat King Cole’s “Exactly Like You” and the instrumental standard “Night Train”.


In order to provide some critical distance, the show’s executive producer, Elton John, appears as guest host—though very quickly he divulges that the two have been friends for nearly ten years, so I suppose “critical distance” may not be the apt term here. John has never interviewed anyone on television before, he points out at the start, and it’s obvious; still, he shares a pleasant rapport with Krall, makes a number of off-stage asides and witticisms to the crowd, and grooves out unabashedly during the performance pieces while leaning against the piano. The two talk piano and jazz and pop, covering Fats Waller, Bill Evans, Joni Mitchell, and Krall’s favorite, Cole. When they perform John’s “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” together, the results are less than stunning (“lounge-caliber indulgence” is the term that springs to mind), but not as bad as when the two tumble through an awkward, eerily lecherous “Making Whoopee” with Costello at the show’s end.


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Wednesday, Feb 18, 2009
The audience interested in seeing a black drug-dealing, rogue cop trumps any audience interested in seeing an entertaining film with plenty of black characters about the birth of America's most revolutionary and transformative civil conflict of the century, challenging white supremacy. Yet, with Negroes like Nellie neatly assimilated into the hegemonic beat, white racism really does not have to exist for blacks to perceive and profess oppression.

Chris, beat that bitch witta bat! The night of the 2009 Grammy Awards, R&B teen-idol Chris Brown turned himself into criminal authorities for battering his girlfriend, pop princess Rihanna. At the BET Awards last year, Chris stole the stage with label-mate Ciara, while his lady watched and cheered from the crowd. The duo claimed any heir to the Beat Street, break-dance moves of the early ‘80s wedded to Paula Abdul/Janet Jackson collaborations of the late ‘80s and ‘90s, or the pop-lock-and-drop-it of today. And Chris can get real Krump! Audiences this year certainly looked forward to Chris and Rihanna’s scheduled performances this year.


‘Beat that bitch witta bat! Beat that bitch witta bat!’ This was one of the most popular House songs in the black gay club in my city during my high school years. Queens and the dancers amongst them like me from the local school of the arts, could be found grinding against one another in the splits on the floor. The singers presses there faces against the mirror, screaming in high falsetto, as we break it down- literally. The Percolator is still one of the fiercest streaks to come from that scene.


“I’m gonna get me a shotgun, baby, and stash it behind the bedroom door. I may have to blow your brains out, baby. Then you won’t bother me no more.”


Much like the lyrics cited above from Eric Clapton’s 1998 “Sick and Tired”, pop anthems celebrate the physical abuse, rape and coercion of women. Despite whatever undertones The Prodigy may have meant, it is probable that crowds only heard violence with their 1997 “Smack My Bitch Up!” Certainly hip-hop is the most explicit to do so to date, yet the natural inequality of women has always been a quality in American popularized culture. See: NWA’s 1989 “Slam her ass in a ditch”; Notorious B.I.G.’s “Kick in the door wavin’ the four-four / All you heard was poppa don’t hit no more.”


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