Spin Control: PJ Harvey and John Parish

April 5, 2009


PJ Harvey and John Parish, "A Woman a Man Walked By" (Island) 3 and a half stars

"Playful" is a word that doesn't automatically spring to mind when considering the work of 39-year-old singer and songwriter Polly Jean Harvey: Despite her occasional forays into the sunnier side of romance --say, "Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea" (2000) -- the bulk of her consistently rewarding catalog is as dark, harrowing and cathartic as rock gets. She certainly was in a Gothic frame of mind on her last official solo album, "White Chalk" (2007), and that mood continues here. "When you call out my name in rapture / I volunteer my soul for murder," she announces on the opening track, "Black Hearted Love" -- and that isn't even the most sinister moment.

Nevertheless, this disc essentially is Harvey letting loose, having fun and kicking back with her favorite collaborator, John Parish, the multi-instrumentalist who's contributed to and sometimes produced her work for two decades now. The difference here, as with their last co-credited effort, "Dance Hall at Louse Point" (1996), is that Parish crafted all of the music. "It's quite freeing, because I only have to think about words ... and singing," Harvey told Billboard. "That's a joy, so in a way it's much easier than writing my own solo work."

Indeed, Harvey is a woman unleashed throughout these 10 tracks, literally barking like a dog on the Captain Beefheart/Tom Waits homage "Pig Will Not," channeling a haunted old woman in "April," fantasizing (one hopes) violent and bloody revenge in the title track and in general enjoying a frenzied mid-life revival of rock 'n' roll fury to rival the one recently witnessed from another of her collaborators, Nick Cave.