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Urban Tales: PJ Harvey spins stories 'From the City' and 'From the Sea' on her new album.

Outside The Loop

PJ Harvey remains the one major female rock star who doesn't have to play the sexpot

By Gina Arnold

IT SAYS in PJ Harvey's latest press material that, in addition to being the seminal female rock figure of the last decade, the diminutive British singer/songwriter enjoys "writing poetry and sculpting." Also sunsets, romantic dinners for two and fuzzy kittens, perhaps?

Nah. One suspects that Harvey doesn't eat, hates pink and finds cuteness abominable--it is anathema to her aesthetic tastes, because she is the walking, talking opposite of all clichés.

She is a woman who does nothing like anyone else, which is why for the last eight years she has been the one individual voice among the sea of plastic, blonde female faces who have populated the rock landscape since Reagan's '80s destroyed whatever semblance of feminine progress rock had managed to muster.

Seriously. With the exception of Harvey, the '70s were the last time that women rock stars--like Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde--were able to express themselves in ways that weren't dependent on their physical comeliness. In the interim, MTV created an entire class of female artists, both black and white, whose often considerable talents are invariably subordinate to their looks.

Madonna, for example--the leading pop figure of the last 20 years--may be a strong woman role model, but she only keeps her power by strumming on every old sexpot string in the book: blondness, bustiness, bitchiness.

That's why Harvey's explosion on the rock scene in 1992 was like a little bonus to the grunge era--not a real part of it (she being English and all), but certainly complementary to it. Her music--grim, frantic, impassioned and strange--represented a revolution of sorts for those of us who were disgusted by the banal utterances of female artists whose anger and/or sadness toward life in general was either whiny or unexpressed.

Harvey is way outside that loop. This is not to say that she can't be glamorous and sexy in her own peculiar and kind of frightening way, but this is not her primary function as an artist. You don't go around wanting to be PJ Harvey. No. You listen to her records because they express certain primal emotions--like love and fear and lust--that describe the human condition. There's just not a shallow bone in her body.

IN THE CURRENT antifeminist climate of musical sexpots, automatons and fashion plates, it's more important than ever to remember what's great about PJ Harvey. And happily, she has given us a brand-new record with which to remember.

Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea (Island) is her fifth album (not counting a collaboration with John Parish) since Dry, and although nothing could come close to that CD's brain-shattering effect on the psyche, this one may well be her most purely enjoyable offering.

It's certainly her most tuneful--and her most upbeat. Whereas 1998's Is This Desire? replaced forceful hard rock with spare, moody tracks awash in bleak sound effects, Stories From the City is a bold, beautiful palette of work replete with her ever-soaring singing and shrieking.

Right from the start, the album will catch at your throat with that choppy, two-chord acoustic guitar rhythm that made songs like "Sheela Na Gig" and "Fifty-foot Queenie" so very exciting. In addition, in "The Mess We're In," a duet with Radiohead's Thom Yorke, Harvey has given us her most haunting, yet accessible, tune to date. It's the hit she's never had.

ALL RECORDS these days are required to have a media hook, and this is Polly's: half the record was written in New York City, and half in her hometown, in Dorset, in rural England. As an angle, it's not too interesting, although both locations seem to have re-energized her musically.

The record is serious but not at all somber, and the lyrics are back to her old form: aggressive, oblique, poetic. "The Whores Hustle and the Hustler's Whore" sees Polly intrigued by the urban nightlife. "Big Exit" is about getting yourself a gun. (Polly wants one.) And on "Kamikaze," she spits, "How could that happen? How the fuck could that happen again? Where the fuck was I looking? When all his horses came in ..."

That said, there are some who might find Stories From the City Harvey's most ordinary album yet. On "You Said Something," for example, she sings in a beautiful alto and sounds positively serene, while "Horses in My Dreams" is another long, calming ballad. And probably most unusual in her work is a newfound positivity. The chorus of the otherwise spooky "We Float" is "take life as it comes."

But Harvey doesn't have to be weird and spooky to be evocative and true. This CD abounds with atmosphere, subtle instrumentation and eerie observations. It makes me long to see her sculptures.

One thing I really appreciate about Harvey is her physical, mental and lyrical oddness. No one's ever going to mistake her for someone else, and no one's going to imitate her, either. In a world full of potential Spice Girls, there's something even more heartening about her presence, even as it damns her to a certain type of well-respected obscurity. She is sort of the female version of Elvis Costello, a revered artist whose music is sometimes difficult but always interesting.

During the last five years, Harvey has not come close to expressing her genius, but Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea is a return to form. Will it win her new fans? Not, perhaps, in giant quantities, but that's why we love her. Would you rather buy a cheap T-shirt that everyone else already has from the Gap, a pretentious but banal Prada special, or a lovingly made, one-of-a-kind item that exudes its own personality? PJ Harvey may not speak to everyone, but she sure as hell speaks to me.

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From the November 16-22, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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