The Deep Three
We’re almost into the second week of the New Year but I’m still exploring a bunch of albums that came out last year, many of which I hadn’t had the time to listen to. Actually January is a good time to carry forward some of the music of the previous year because it is rare for too many new albums to be released during the first month of any year. People—everyone, from critics, bloggers, bands, record companies to fans—are too busy recovering from the holidays to do anything else.
So, here’s what I did for the past few days. I took three albums from the bunch that I didn’t quite get the time to listen to carefully and put them all into a playlist, sampling them whenever I could get time. Unwittingly, the three albums I chose are all by women singers. And, as you’ll soon discover, they share much more than the gender.
English singer, songwriter and musician Polly Jean Harvey, 42, has many fans, including an unlikely one in one of my colleagues. The man, whose work-station is adorned with posters of bands such as Nirvana and Rancid, and one of Jameson Irish Whiskey, has also stuck a picture of the petite PJ Harvey in a see-through pink top. Harvey’s poster at his desk is at eye-level when he sits at his laptop to whack out his rigorously researched, deeply commentative pieces, so I guess there is some kind of special place she occupies in his scheme of things.
Anyway, he and I have discussed Harvey’s music off and on, especially her 2009 collaboration with the guitarist John Parish on the album, A Woman A Man Walked By, which I initially found a difficult album to get into because of the range of emotions they covered but then became very fond of because of exactly that. On that album, Harvey and Parish treat us to songs that are so different from each other (do check out two: Black Hearted Love and Pig Will Not, for instance) that that itself makes it an appealing piece of work.
P.J. Harvey has a voice that may belie what you see in that pink-topped poster that my colleague has pinned to his soft-board: it’s angry and gravelly; her lyrics aren’t cooingly sweet and are often laced with deep, dark humour. There’s rawness about her music too, particularly the guitar, and all of that makes the entire P.J. Harvey experience well worth it. After listening to her collaboration with Parish, I went back in time and explored many of Harvey’s older albums—Dry, Rid of Me, White Chalk, and so on. It’s not as if I became an instant fan but her music and her unsettling lyrics made me occasionally get into one or other of her albums.
So, last year, when Let England Shake came out, I went out and acquired it but heard it only in the first week of the New Year. It’s an album that is ostensibly meant to be love songs to one’s country but in reality turns out to be a subversive take on it—replete with ambiguity, Let England Shake is irony in melody, with songs that talk about loss and death and war. It’s an album that came out very early in 2011 and I’m a bit ashamed that I have heard it seriously only now. But it’s going to remain on my playlist for a while.
It’s just a coincidence that the second singer on my leftover-from-2011 playlist is also English. But she’s also a legend. Kate Bush, 53, released 50 Words for Snow, a winter-themed album that is about abominable snowmen, snowflakes, ill-fated romance and more and it’s an album for solitary listening, preferably on a very chilly day. Bush’s first album was released in the late seventies and her distinctive vocals—she has a very sensual yet versatile voice–and complex songs have led critics to classify her music as art rock. Indeed, 50 Words can seem like a shimmering work of art, ethereal, haunting, happy and sad.
Now I swear this is a coincidence because the third artist on my playlist is also from England and it’s a she again. Florence Welch fronts the London band, Florence + the Machine, and their new album, Ceremonials, has been compared to Kate Bush’s music. But Welch has a style that blends pop and soul and art rock in the manner of other contemporaries with whom critics like to club her—Adele, Lily Allen and the late Amy Winehouse. But unlike the first two, I find Welch’s songs more literate and thoughtful and her music more theatrical. I’d heard the band’s 2009 album Lungs and liked it. Last year’s Ceremonials is even better.
So that’s it then. I began this year in the company of three women. Not too shabby a start that, is it?